The Malaysian Insider understands the prime minister’s personal visit is to help repair frayed ties arising from the Catholic Church’s legal suit to use “Allah” to refer to the Christian god in its Bahasa Malaysia publication. The case is pending in the Court of Appeal after the church won the right in the High Court on December 31, 2009.
“It’s a private visit, as an individual. It’s not an official visit . . . because there are no diplomatic ties,” a source told The Malaysian Insider.
But the sources also said Najib would be accompanied by government officials, including from the foreign ministry and representatives from the Malaysian branch of the Roman Catholic Church headed by the Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur, Tan Sri Murphy Pakiam, who is to act as the go-between.
“He’s a decorated leader and the best qualified among the Christians,” the source said of Pakiam.
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 are communist governments including China, North Korea, Laos and Vietnam.
While Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli is an apostolic delegate to Malaysia and Brunei, he does not hold the same rank as an “apostolic nuncio”, which is what the official papal emissary is called; he can only speak to the local Roman Catholic Church members here on religious matters.
Other sources, also requesting anonymity, disclosed that the meeting would be held not in the Vatican but in the pope’s summer residence on the outskirts of Italy’s capital city.
The sources stressed that Najib had sought the audience with Benedict in his personal capacity as an individual, and likened it to the working visit of the PM’s political mentor, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, to the Vatican nine years ago.
Dr Mahathir was the first Malaysian prime minister to have met with Pope Benedict’s predecessor, the late John Paul II, at the Vatican on June 6, 2002, during a working visit to Switzerland and Luxembourg.
Najib’s private visit, however, is being criticised by some quarters, who described it as “an election ploy to gain support from Christians”.
Malaysia’s multi-denominational Christian community is believed to form close to 10 per cent of the 28 million total population, with Roman Catholics making up nearly one million.
But most of the Christians in East Malaysia follow a few other denominations apart from Roman Catholicism, and Najib’s visit is seen to only assuage the concerns of the Catholics, and not other Christians.
Putrajaya’s severe actions limiting the import of the Alkitab, the Malay-language version of the bible, from Indonesia plus delays in moving forward the legal tussles over the use of the word “Allah” to also refer to the Christian god has stirred anger among the community, especially in East Malaysia, long considered the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) government’s vote bank.
The latest allegations by BN-controlled media, including Umno-owned Utusan Malaysia, that Christians are working hand-in-glove with communist insurgents and opposition politicians to topple the government of the day and supplant it with a Christian prime minister in a public rally organised by electoral reform group Bersih 2.0 this Saturday have stirred a storm of protests.