A Closer Look at Conversion in Malaysia

Malaysia Makes Its Case on Conversion
( [email protected] ) Jul 28, 2004 02:11 PM EDT

In multi-ethnic Malaysia, where Islam is the official religion but freedom of religion is guaranteed under the constitution, the majority Malays are born Muslim and changing religions is all but impossible for them. Cases of aspiring apostates are handled by Sharia rather than civil courts, and according to the Koran, which states that no Muslim should assist another out of the religion, conversion to another faith is grounds for death.

According to a Hong Kong-based news agency, authorities have begun to crack-down on apostates, restricting their activities in order to prevent them from introducing Malays to Christian doctrine. Appeals for conversion usually sit unheard, and many would-be converts don't live to see their conversion officially recognized, reported the Asia Times. As one religious scholar put it, "In Malaysia, there's a way into Islam, but no way out."

Muslims also get some preferential treatment. According to the US government's International Religious Freedom Report for 2003, "It is official policy to 'infuse Islamic values' into the administration of the country."

Meanwhile, non-Muslims often face difficulties in obtaining licensing and state funding for their places of worship.

According to Shad Salem Faruq, professor of law at the University of Technology MARA, it is Christian proselytizing the government is most worried about. Malaysia, where Muslims make up 60% of the population, is also home to substantial Hindu and Buddhist minorities (6% and 20% respectively). "But Hinduism and Buddhism historically have had less of a tradition of proselytizing than Christianity," Faruq said.

Although Christians comprise around 9% of the population, it is illegal for certain Christian material to be printed in the national language, and some states restrict Christians from using the Malay language for certain religious terms, such as "Allah" (God), for fear that Muslims be confused.

Also, it is illegal for the Bible and other Christian materials to be printed in the national language, Bahasa Malay. Proselytizing of Muslims by non-Muslims is also forbidden (though the reverse is okay). And proselytizers have been put away under the Internal Securities Act (ISA), which allows for indefinite detention without trial.

Despite the obstacles, some Christian evangelists are continuing their mission work. Reverend "Kumar" said it's still fresh in his mind the night the ISA police rattled his front gate in the middle of the night. The warning was clear, though it has not stopped Kumar. "I am not afraid," he said. "My work is God's will and I have a worthy cause to fight for. [Malays] have a right to find Jesus."

His evangelical church has 12 branches throughout Malaysia and 30 affiliates. Kumar estimates that 100 Muslims are converting to Christianity every month in Malaysia. He says there has been a marked increase in interest since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States. "In the kampongs [villages] more people have opened their hearts to our message, and more people are coming to see us," he said.

Christian groups estimate that there are 30,000 Malay converts in Malaysia. Some Muslim groups put the figure much lower, but then, say non-denominational observers, most converts are said to live in secrecy for fear of harassment from the government, family and fellow Malays.

One Malay convert and former ustaza (Muslim religious teacher), now a colleague of Reverend Kumar, recalls being ejected from her family for five years for converting to Christianity. Her family has since forgiven her, but she and her children continue to be harassed by the authorities. Because she is Malay, her son was born Muslim and forced to adopt a Muslim name. In school, despite his protests that he is a Christian, he is forced to sit through Islamic studies, as all Muslims are required to do.

In her opinion, "The [authorities] have begun to really clamp down on converts." She has had her run-ins with the ISA police, her phone was tapped recently and last year, five religious-police officers came to her home and insisted that she stop her activities.

In addition to introducing Malays and other non-Christians to Christian doctrine, her activities, she said, included assisting drug addicts and battered women in rehabilitation centers. She is now forbidden to do so.

According to Christian Solidarity Worldwide, the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Sikhism has highlighted the discrimination non-Muslim faiths face, such as difficulties in obtaining permission to build places of worship, restrictions on sharing their faiths and unequal access to media outlets.

At the same time Islamists continue to lobby the government to adopt stricter punishments for apostasy and to implement Sharia Law throughout the country.

[Source: Asia Times]