Tension Grows in Malaysian Religious Controversy

Always-tense relations between Malaysia’s religious communities continue to be strained again over a raid on Aug. 3 by officials of the Selangor Islamic Religious Department on a Methodist church in the Kuala Lumpur suburb of Petaling Jaya where they said Malay Muslims were being converted to Christianity.

The Christian leaders say nothing of the sort was going on, and that the affair was a dinner to recognize an NGO called Harapan Komuniti (Community Hope) for its efforts to combat Aids. About 100 to 150 people were attending the dinner, among them 12 ethnic Malays.

Yesterday afternoon, the religious department said it was considering arrest warrants for the 12 Muslims, who apparently have refused on the advice of lawyers to give the department statements about their activities at the dinner.

Both Malays and Christians have repeatedly accused the other of attempting to convert the opposite members to their respective religions. According to Malaysia’s Demographic Statistics Division, 60.3 percent of the population is ethnic Malay, 22.9 percent Chinese and 6.7 percent Indian, with other races making up the difference, although the size of the Malay majority is disputed by the smaller ethnic groups.

The story has been complicated by reports in the Malay-language Berita Harian, a daily owned by the United Malays National Organization, and Harian Metro, a tabloid, that two women who attended the dinner said they had been offered RM1,000 each to convert to Christianity. The stories said Christian groups often target poverty-stricken Malays and offer them money to change their religion. The religious police also said the fact that a speaker had used the words Quran and “pray” in a speech was an indication of proseylitizing.

Christian leaders denied the charge. The raid has been roundly condemned by other religious groups as well, who expressed shock that Islamic religious police would enter a church. However, the youth wing of Perkasa, a group that advocates so-called Ketuanan Melayu, or Malay rights, said the reports by the two papers could be credible and asked for a police investigation into the claims.

The federal constitution, which ensures freedom of religion in Malaysia, also bans conversion attempts. Other state governments have enacted other statues that prohibit proselytizing by non-Muslims.

The presence of the Malays at a Christian church dinner during the Muslim fasting month was particularly sensitive, said a Malay source in Kuala Lumpur. “You don’t enter a church during Ramadan,” he said. Muslims are forbidden by their religion from taking food between sunrise and sunset.

The raid has caused confusion because the Selangor State government, which has control over the Islamic religious department, a quasi-government organization, is in turn controlled by the Pakatan Rakyat opposition coalition. Typically it is the United Malays National Organization, the leading ethnic party in the national ruling coalition, which is accused by the opposition of fomenting religious tension. In fact, the raid was condemned by Khairy Jamaluddin, the chief of the UMNO youth wing, although mainly because the opposition coalition had allowed it to go forward.

Parti Islam se-Malaysia, which is still largely a fundamentalist Islamist party despite the election of moderate officers earlier this year who declared the party to be secular one now, shares an uneasy balance in largely moderate, middle-class Selangor state with the ethnic Chinese Democratic Action Party and more moderate urban Malays.

The state’s chief minister is Khalid Ibrahim of Anwar's Parti Keadilan Rakyat,* who apologized to the church. However, Hasan Ali, the executive councilor in charge of Islamic matters, defended the raid. No action apparently is being contemplated against Hasan by the party despite the embarrassment the raid has caused with the coalition’s non-Malay elements. That has spurred speculation that party leaders are concerned that action against Hasan would alienate conservative Muslims in the kampongs, or rural villages who are uneasy about the basic shift in the party’s philosophy.

The strongest condemnation came from the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism,, an interfaith group that said in a prepared release that it “unreservedly condemns the unwarranted raid... which clearly breached the constitutionally guaranteed, and internationally recognized, sanctity of a holy place of worship – an event which has been confirmed by the Malaysian AIDS Council to have been organized to raise funds.”

The council described itself as “astonished as to how using the words “Quran” and “Pray” in speech can amount to proselytizing towards Muslims when these very words are used every day by Malaysians when conversing with each other.” The religious police’s action, the council said, “sets a dangerous precedent which must be stopped and condemned by all peace-loving Malaysians. The constitutionally guaranteed and internationally recognized sanctity of all places of worship cannot be compromised, and this unprecedented violation must be investigated and those responsible, appropriately punished.”

The statement also questioned whether any people had been asked to convert, as the newspapers reported, and demanded that: “If the newspapers in question are found to have published false statements likely, or meant, to incite religious or racial hatred between Malaysians, the authorities must initiate the necessary action to punish them to the full extent provided for in our laws.”

The UMNO-owned newspapers in the past have been criticized for consistently using inflamed language to describe relations between the races. At one point earlier this year they reported that Christian leaders in Penang had met to seek to convert Malaysia from an Islamic state to a Christian one, which Christian leaders dismissed as nonsense.

*Correction on 10 Aug. 2011. Khalid Ibrahim's party affiliation was misidentified.