Monday, February 18, 2008

Malaysian Churches Campaign For Religious Freedom In Elections

The Associated PressPublished: February 18, 2008

Malaysia's churches are wading cautiously into politics by urging Christians to vote for candidates in next month's general elections who champion religious freedom in the Muslim-majority society.

The call illustrates growing concern among religious minorities who feel their rights are being eroded by a rise in Islamic fervor, which many blame on overzealous Muslim bureaucrats in Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's government.

Churches began handing out brochures last weekend urging Christians to examine the platforms and records of political parties on "freedom of religion, conscience and speech" before casting their ballots in March 8 national elections.

"We want to hold every politician accountable," Hermen Shastri, executive secretary of the Christian Federation of Malaysia, said Monday. "Many people may not vote for representatives who won't speak up" for religious rights, he said. The federation includes the Protestant Christian Council of Malaysia, Roman Catholics and the National Evangelical Fellowship.

Although some churches have made similar calls in the past, many Christians are particularly concerned about the outcome of these elections because of what they regard as "the trend of Islamization and how that is affecting other religious communities," Shastri said.

He stressed that churches remain nonpartisan, and that the campaign is not an endorsement of secular opposition parties, which accuse the government of allowing religious discrimination to strain decades of multiethnic harmony.

About 60 percent of Malaysia's 27 million people are ethnic Malay Muslims. The rest are mainly Christians, Buddhists and Hindus from the ethnic Chinese and Indian communities.

The Christian federation is working with its Buddhist and Hindu counterparts, which may distribute similar pamphlets at temples, Shastri said.

Minorities have been upset by recent developments such as a government ban on the word "Allah" in Malay-language Christian literature, the demolition of Hindu temples and court judgments favoring Muslims in disputes with non-Muslims.

Prime Minister Abdullah assured minorities Sunday he was "honest and fair" with all religions.

"Of course, there are minor misunderstandings," Abdullah said a speech to Chinese voters. "What is important is that we are willing to talk and solve our problems together."

Teresa Kok, a lawmaker representing the opposition Democratic Action Party, said the church initiative "will definitely help to create some political awareness," but may not swing large amounts of support to the opposition.

Many Christians, especially in urban, middle-class populations, traditionally support Abdullah's National Front coalition because they "don't want to rock the boat," Kok said.

The National Front consists of 14 parties representing various ethnic groups. The coalition, which has governed since 1957, is expected to easily retain power but with a lower parliamentary majority because of religious tensions and complaints over inflation, crime and corruption.

No comments: