KUALA LUMPUR, July 18 — When Datuk Seri Najib Razak meets Pope Benedict XVI today, he will be hoping to win back Christian backing for Barisan Nasional (BN), but analysts say it will take more than a papal audience to convince sceptical Catholics and Christians.
They said today that the prime minister must rein in the right-wing elements of the ruling coalition and prevent further harassment against Christians by his own administration.
The prime minister will call on the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Rome today in talks to establish diplomatic ties. The visit follows several incidents that have heightened religious tension in Malaysia.
“It (the meeting) will repair the damage done to the Christian community . . . as long as there are no more controversies regarding the Christian community,” political analyst James Chin told The Malaysian Insider today.
He pointed out that Umno-owned Utusan Malaysia had recently accused Christians of plotting to take over the government, and claimed that the July 9 Bersih rally was funded by foreign Christian organisations.
“He (Najib) needs to keep Utusan and all other right-wing groups who make false accusations in check,” said Chin.
Malaysia’s Christians form close to 10 per cent of the country’s 28 million population, with Roman Catholics making up nearly one million people.
Christians also comprise nearly half of the 2.4-million-strong population in Sarawak, an East Malaysian state that is traditionally considered a vote bank for the Barisan Nasional (BN).
Political scientist Dr Sivamurugan Pandian, from Universiti Sains Malaysia, said Najib needed to resolve outstanding issues such as the rows over the Alkitab and use of the word Allah.
“He would want to address the bible issue as not a threat to national security,” he told The Malaysian Insider.
The Najib administration has allowed Christians in Sabah and Sarawak to bring in Malay bibles without restriction, but required the front covers of Malay bibles in peninsular Malaysia to be printed with the words “Christian Publication”, with the symbol of a cross.
The move followed Christian outrage against the Home Ministry’s seizure of 35,100 Malay bibles.
Christians are also barred from calling their god “Allah”, pending a Home Ministry appeal of a 2009 High Court ruling that allowed the Catholic Church to use the word in its newspaper.
After the ruling, several churches throughout the country were fire-bombed in January last year.
Many Catholics remain unconvinced with Najib’s attempts to pacify the community, as shown by a letter to the Pope that accused the PM of manipulating religious sentiment.
“Indeed, the conduct of Prime Minister Najib and his Barisan Nasional government at home, at least recently, has been anything but moderate!” said the letter recently circulated among Catholics in Malaysia. “We also highlight how there have been curbs to freedom of religion although it is guaranteed in the federal constitution in Malaysia.”
Malaysia is among 17 nations with whom the Vatican has yet to have formal relations despite the church’s long presence in the country. Of the 17, nine are Muslim countries while another four have communist governments, including China, North Korea, Laos and Vietnam.
Last Saturday the New York Times newspaper also reported political scientist Farish Ahmad Noor as saying that “the Najib administration has to show once and for all that it will not allow the harassment of Christians to continue in the country”.
“There’s no point in Najib going to the Vatican if we were to have another spate of church bombings,” said Farish, who is based at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia political scientist Datuk Shamsul Amri Baharuddin was also quoted as saying that interfaith dialogues have not been very successful due to state control over Muslim religious practices.