Several hundred Malaysian Catholics have endorsed a letter to the Pope about Prime Minister Najib Razak’s visit to the Vatican on July 19. Following are extracts from the letter which provides background and a context for the visit that Catholics hope will help shape how the Vatican builds ties with Malaysia:
“Malaysia, a Muslim-dominant country has a population of 28 million people with 2.2 million registered as Christians, including an estimated 850,000 Catholics. The PM’s Vatican visit followed the recent repression of civil society groups.
July 9, 2011: The ‘Walk for Democracy’ was initiated by a coalition of 62 NGOs called Bersih 2.0 (bersih meaning ‘clean’ in Malay, our national language). The coalition’s plan was for a peaceful street walk in support of clean and fair elections. Malaysia has been ruled by a single party – the BN coalition dominated by the United Malay National Organization (UMNO)—since independence in 1957.
The respected Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism, affirmed Bersih’s right to conduct this peaceful walk for ‘just demands.’
In deference to the king, who intervened to head off a confrontation, Bersih opted to hold a rally in the Stadium Merdeka. Yet the government declared that Bersih was ‘an illegal organization.’ A court order was obtained to ban 91 leaders of Bersih and the Opposition (and also those from anti-Bersih groups) from entering parts of Kuala Lumpur around Stadium Merdeka under threat of ‘arrest on sight’.
Najib’s government banned the wearing of yellow Bersih T-shirts, raided the Bersih office and arrested six workers. Bersih supporters who participated in ‘roadshows’ to publicise the Walk were also arrested. Six of them, members of the Parti Sosialis Malaysia, were detained under the Emergency Ordinance.
On July 9 the police set up road blocks and barbed wire fences. They used water cannons and fired tear gas into the crowd. A total of 1,667 people including 151 women and 16 children were arrested. There was NO violence on the part of the tens of thousands of Bersih supporters who came from all ethno-religious backgrounds.
Yet, prime minister Najib claimed that the police acted professionally, and condemned Bersih and the Opposition for tarnishing the image of the country. The Bar Council of Malaysia observed that the police ‘used force excessively’.
Two days before the July 9 event, Najib had addressed a gathering of Malay silat (martial arts) exponents and, reportedly, suggested that the silat groups could be a third line of defence against enemies from within and outside the country.
On July 2 in a gathering of about 20,000 people in the town of Kota Baru, Najib, in a live broadcast over Radio Malaysia, described Ambiga Sreenevasan, the chairperson of Bersih, as ‘a threat to Islam’ for the watching brief she held as the then president of the Bar Council in the Lina Joy case.
Freedom of religion?
Lina Joy was a Muslim woman who converted to Catholicism before marrying a member of the faith. She filed against the Registration Department for registering her religion as ‘Islam’ in her MyKad (identity card) although she had converted.
It was popularly understood by many Malaysians that this was a violation of the freedom of religion guaranteed in the Federal Constitution. Najib’s labeling of Ambiga Sreenevasan as a threat to Islam is a deliberate distortion of her professional role.
The Lina Joy case arose from a conflict between two legal jurisdictions – the civil law versus shariah. There have been several cases involving the conversion of minors to Islam; the custody of children and/or the question of maintenance following the conversion to Islam of one spouse; the question of inheritance and even funeral arrangements following the death of a spouse who had purportedly converted to Islam. The non-Muslim litigants often found themselves helplessly trapped between or confined to only one of concurrent jurisdictions since they do not have locus standi in the shariah court.
Use of “Allah”
In the case between the Catholic church and the Malaysian government regarding use of the word Allah in the Catholic weekly The Herald, the government had argued that the word Allah should be confined to use among Muslims only.
Related to this was the controversy over the distribution of Bibles in Malay. One shipment was held back by the Home Ministry for years and the matter was taken to Court.
On the island of Borneo in East Malaysia, Christians constitute 43% of the population in Sarawak and 28% in Sabah (2000 Census). It is not inconceivable that photographs of Najib standing alongside the Holy Father will be distributed particularly in the rural areas where the Christian indigenous people predominate, in the run-up to the next election in 2013.
In the 2008 election, the multiracial, multi-religious Opposition coalition in Malaysia succeeded in denying the BN government a two-thirds’ majority in parliament. That majority had previously allowed the BN government to amend the Federal Constitution at will. The Opposition coalition also won an unprecedented 5 out of the 13 state governments. In fact, the BN government lost the popular vote to the Opposition in peninsula Malaysia.
Despite that, the reason why the BN was returned to power in the 2008 election was because it had secured virtually all the parliamentary seats in Sabah and Sarawak. In other words, victory for the BN (as well as for the Opposition) will depend on how well it performs in those two states.”