Malaysian Christians Face Threats, Worries

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KUALA LUMPUR- Malaysia bills itself as a moderate Islamic country, but today powerful forces are trying to turn it into a fundamentalist Islamic state.

This has Malaysian Christians worried about the future of religious freedom.

"They forced me to renounce Christ but I said no way!" said Daniel, a Christian convert.

Daniel is a young Malaysian who has lived a secret and sometimes dangerous life.

"I've been threatened with death so many times by radical Muslims, but by the grace of God I'm still alive," he explained.

Daniel converted from Islam to Christianity in 1998.

"Under the Islamic laws of my country, the authorities can arrest me for my conversion," he said.

Malaysians attempting to leave Islam has become one of the most controversial issues in this country.

The debate erupted last year when Malaysia's highest court rejected a Muslim convert's battle to be legally recognized as a Christian.

Malik Imtiaz Sarwar, a well-known human rights lawyer and a Muslim, presented a brief in support of Ms Lina Joy's conversion case.

"It crystallized a legal basis to implement the kind of measures that we say are undermining the entire societal framework of this country," he said. "Lina Joy was a bad decision, a very, very bad decision."

A decision that forced Lina Joy to flee the country. Meanwhile, Sarwar's support for Joy made him a wanted man. Posters carrying his picture circulated calling for his death. He's been branded an Islamic traitor because he believes that Malaysians should be free to choose their religion.

"The freedom is to profess and once one professes, and this is even in the Koran, it is for that person and God after that."

Malay-Muslims make up 60 percent of the population. The rest are mostly Christians, Hindus and Buddhists.

Wong Kim Kong is the head of the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship.

"The extreme fundamentalists tend to believe that the laws of Malaysia must be Sharia compliant," he said.

Kong says there's been a subtle and gradual encroachment by extreme fundamentalists in the affairs and rights of Christians.

A case in point: The Malaysian government recently announced that certain Arabic words such as "Allah" cannot be used by non-Muslims. They argue that "Allah" - which means God in the Malay language - refers to the Muslim God and can only be used by Muslims.

"The Islamic authorities failed to recognize that the word "Allah" predates Islam. This word existed way before the Islamic religion came into existence," Kong said.

At the center of this controversy is The Herald, a Christian newspaper, that's been warned repeatedly that its permit may be revoked if it refuses to drop the use of "Allah" in its Malay-language section.

The Herald has filed a lawsuit against the government on grounds that the ban is unconstitutional and against freedom of religion.

Meanwhile, violations against the Christian community continue. Officers of the Malay Internal Security's religious department raided several Christian bookstores recently and seized children's books, claiming that they violated Islamic Sharia law and aroused Muslim sensitivities.

Ioannis Gatsiounis is a freelance journalist based in Malaysia.

"One of the things we hear quite a bit of in Malaysia is the need to protect Muslim sensitivities. I don't think that bodes well for tolerance. Tolerance is not about protecting sensitivities but about getting people used to accepting other people as they are."

In the last year several indigenous churches have also been destroyed by the Islamic police.

These episodes leave many worried about the future of religious freedom here and uncomfortable with the rise of a new and radical form of Islam that threatens to undermine Malaysia's image as a moderate and progressive nation.

"We want people around the world to pray for us," Daniel said. "We want people to speak out on our behalf so that we can have the freedom to practice our faith."

*Original broadcast March 25, 2008.

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CBN News
George Thomas

George Thomas

CBN News Senior Reporter

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