Christian churches in Malaysia are trying to cope with recent violence in the officially-Muslim, but religiously tolerant country.
The violence followed a court ruling that overturned a government ban on the use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims. A Roman Catholic publication led the fight to overturn the ban.
Christians had used the word “Allah” for “God” for hundreds of years. But some Muslims worried that the practice could encourage Muslim conversions to Christianity, something that is illegal in Malaysia.
Eleven Christian churches, a Sikh temple and a mosque have been attacked in violence that followed the 31 December ruling.
The Christian Federation of Malaysia condemned the attacks and issued a statement calling on Malaysians to stand against such violence. It also called on police to continue to maintain peace and security.
The U.S. government agency on religious freedom also expressed concern. Leonard Leo, the chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, was quoted by the AFP news service as saying the church bombings “have shaken Malaysia’s delicate political and ethnic balance.”
About 60 percent of Malaysians are ethnic Malays, practically all of whom are Muslim. Ethnic Chinese, Indians and tribal peoples embrace other religions, such as Buddhism, Christianity and Hinduism.
The issue of Muslim conversion is a sensitive matter in Malaysia, particularly regarding the officially Muslim Malay ethnic group.
“If an ethnic Chinese person is a Christian, that’s no problem, that’s sort of expected, but if an ethnic Malay person is a Christian, that is a problem and they will likely face persecution,” said Todd Nettleton, director of Media Development for The Voice of the Martyrs U.S.A.(V.O.M.). The Voice of the Martyrs is an organization that seeks to help “the persecuted church” worldwide.
Nettleton says the recent attacks on non-Muslim religious groups are fairly unusual in Malaysia. “Churches have existed in Malaysia for a long time. They have existed relatively peacefully as long as they are not openly encouraging Muslims to leave Islam and become Christians,” Nettleton explained.
An individual's right to religious freedom is guaranteed in the Malaysian constitution, but the government actively promotes the spread of Islam and refuses to recognize conversions from Islam.
“If there is no freedom to change your religion—to change from being a Muslim to being a Christian—then there really isn’t freedom of religion is spite of what the government may say,” Nettleton said.
Nettleton says a positive result of the attacks is that moderate Muslims have begun to speak out against the violence. “More moderate Muslims have had a chance to speak out and say, wait a minute, this is not Saudi Arabia, this is Malaysia—Christian churches should be allowed to stand, they should be safe in our country,” he said.
Nettleton says some Malaysian churches have responded to the recent violence by forgiving their attackers. “They have responded with love, they have responded with forgiveness to those who have burned their church buildings,” he said.
Tabernacle Metro Church senior pastor Ong Sek Lang announced that his church would forgive those who burned its building on 10 January.
News reports said Prime Minister Najib Razak visited the church and offered aid for rebuilding.
At least 19 people have been arrested in connection with the violence.