Attacks on Christian churches in Malaysia deepen racial tension

For immediate release: Feb 26, 2010

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysia  strongly condemned attacks on nine Christian churches and sought to assure foreign governments Monday of its commitment to religious freedom for minorities.

The unprecedented attacks have strained ties between minority Christians and the majority Malay Muslims, denting Malaysia’s image as a moderate Muslim-majority country and raising questions about its political stability.

The attacks, which started Friday, were apparently triggered by a Dec. 31 High Court decision that overturned a government ban on Roman Catholics’ using “Allah” to refer to their God in the Malay-language edition of their main newspaper, the Herald.

The ruling also applies to the ban’s broader applications such as Malay-language Bibles, 10,000 copies of which were recently seized by authorities because they translated God as Allah. The government has appealed the verdict.

On Monday, the Home Ministry held a one-hour briefing for about 70 foreign diplomats to assure them that the situation was under control. The ministry pledged to “protect the sanctity” of the diversity of the country’s religions and said police would step up patrols at churches and mosques around the country.

The ministry said the attacks were perpetrated by extremists who wanted to weaken the country’s commitment to racial harmony, one of the key draws for foreign investors.

“These were not just attacks on houses of worship, they were attacks on the values and freedoms all Malaysians share,” the statement said.

About 9% of Malaysia’s 28 million people are Christian, most of whom are ethnic Chinese or Indian. Muslims make up 60% of the population and most are ethnic Malays.

The attacks are also a blow to racial unity espoused by Prime Minister Najib Razak under his “1Malaysia” slogan since taking power in April, and pose a new challenge for him as he seeks to strengthen his ruling coalition after its losses in 2008 general elections.

“It showed that, after 52 years of living together, nation building and national unity is in tatters,” said Charles Santiago, an opposition member of Parliament. “The church attacks shattered notions of Malaysia as a model secular Muslim nation in the eyes of the international community.

The latest attack early Monday left the main entrance of the Borneo Evangelical Church in southern Negeri Sembilan state charred, said the Rev. Eddy Marson Yasir. He said it was unclear how the wooden door was burned, but there was no evidence that a firebomb had been used.

The church caters mostly to Christians from eastern Sabah and Sarawak states, who worship in the Malay language and use the word “Allah” to describe God.

Firebombs have been thrown at seven other churches nationwide since Friday, with another splashed with black paint. No one was hurt and the churches suffered little damage, except the Metro Tabernacle Church in a Kuala Lumpur suburb, which had its office on the first floor gutted by fire.

Some 130 Muslim voluntary groups have offered to help protect the churches by becoming the “eyes and ears” of the police, said Nadzim Johan, a representative of the groups.

Religious minorities in Malaysia have often complained about what they say is institutionalized religious discrimination as Islam takes on increasing dominance.

Jamil Khir Baharom, the Cabinet minister responsible for Islamic affairs, called on Christian leaders Monday to drop their claim to the use of “Allah” to help ease tensions, the national news agency Bernama reported.

“I urge them to be wary and responsible toward peace and security in Malaysia,” Jamil was quoted as saying.

The Allah ban is unusual in the Muslim world. The Arabic word is commonly used by Christians to describe God in such countries as Egypt, Syria and Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation.

The Herald has been using Allah in its Bahasa Malaysia publication since 1995, but it was not until 2006 that it was warned by the government to stop using Allah to refer to God.

Some analysts say the government ban showed that Najib’s ruling United Malays National Organization was using Islam to shore up its support among Malays, blurring the line between race and religion.

“Malaysia is heading toward dangerous waters,” said James Chin, political science lecturer at Monash University in Malaysia. “Minorities are under siege and feel they don’t have a place in Malaysia anymore,” he said.
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