The variety of ethnic groups, cultures, and religions in Malaysia is a distinctive element of the country and a reason for pride. In everyday life, cohabitation, as we have seen, is far from harmonious and is often politically exploited.
Islam, practiced by 61.3 per cent of Malaysians, was declared the official state religion. This caused discontent among minorities, especially for the practical consequences implied by this choice of identity requested by “the fathers of the nation.” That choice can be justified if we consider the context of severe tensions the country went through in the past. This involved Communist China, with tensions between Malaysians and Chinese, resentments against Christians seen as the heirs of Western domination, and against Indians largely linked to the colonial experience.
Buddhists, mostly Chinese, are now 19.8 per cent of the population, followed by Christians with 9.2 per cent, and Hindus (6.3%). Malaysian followers of socio-philosophical practices of Chinese origin such as Confucianism and Taoism are only 1.3 per cent. Only 1 per cent of Malaysians say they do not belong to any officially recognized religion. 11.1 per cent of the Chinese, which are 46 per cent of non-indigenous Malays, a small percentage of the peninsular Malaysians, and Indians are Christian. A unique cross community of baptized made up of multi ethnic groups. A third – about 850 thousand – is Catholic. Inevitably, even in the last election campaign, religion played a relevant role, given its centrality in Malaysian democracy and its uncertainties. How did Christians react to the electoral verdict?
“The ruling party – said Jesuit Father Lawrence Andrew, director of the Catholic weekly magazine ‘Herald Malaysia’ – intimidated the population, raising suspicions that the opposition coalition would introduce legislation characterised by markedly Islamic precepts. But this is a manipulation rather than a real risk: in fact, in the opposition, only the Parti Islam Se-Malaysia is openly confessional.”
The churches, collaborating even more during the polls, called for the vote to take place in a peaceful and transparent way, emphasizing the values ??of justice, legality, equality, and respect for freedom of religion. The “anti-corruption campaign” has been the central issue not only for the opposition but also for Christians. “People are particularly sensitive to issues such as injustice, discrimination, and marginalisation,” Father Andrew reminds us, “and the opposition has become the spokesman of dissatisfaction. The government responded by presenting itself as the guarantor of stability and in the election campaign also included the religious factor, increasing, in reality, the risk of conflicts.” Propaganda made use of extremist slogans, never seen before. “Do you want to see your grandchildren praying in Allah’s house? If we allow Allah to be used by churches,” was on a Malay language electoral poster depicting majestic Christian places of worship.
A sign, along with Umno’s renewed commitment to ban the use of the word “Allah” to refer also to the Christian God, which raised the protest of the Christian Federation of Malaysia, and urged the authorities “to act quickly to prevent hate and clashes.” The evolution of public and social life and the first signs of radical Islam, along with the reactions of minority religions, have recently pushed the Malaysian Catholic Episcopal Conference to urge the safeguard of religious freedom.
Hostile actions against Christian places of worship seem to be isolated initiatives rather than part of a strategy, but their frequency and the fact that perpetrators often go unpunished alarms the small Catholic community. Another element of tension and injustice is the impossibility for those who convert from Islam to another faith to have the conversion recognized on official documents.
Normal diplomatic relations between the Malaysian Federation and the Holy See began at the meeting of 18 July 2011 in the Vatican between Benedict XVI and Prime Minister Najib Razak. This has opened new perspectives, with unfortunately few concrete results so far. Inevitably, as the Catholic Bishop of Penang, Monsignor Sebastian Francis recalled in his pre-electoral appeal, the occasion of the vote was “critical and important for the growth of democratic structures.” Similarly to what happened at the last May polls, Christian Churches found more support for their claims with the political opposition and civil society. (Stefano Vecchia)