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Malaysian churches accused of getting involved in politics

Publication Date : 12-10-2012


Malaysian churches have become embroiled in controversy again after an Umno-owned daily, Utusan Malaysia, and a member of Parliament under Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) accused them of getting involved in politics.

The newspaper this week accused some Penang church leaders of trying to garner votes from Christians for the opposition after they held a dialogue with Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng on October 6. News reports had quoted Lim as telling Christians to stand up against injustice. The Penang churches and an organisation of Protestant churches refuted these allegations.

"This is a dialogue session between the state government and the Penang churches, held on a neutral ground," National Evangelical Christian Fellowship representative Sam Surendran said.

A second furore was stirred when former PAS deputy president Nasharuddin Mat Isa, who holds conservative views, accused the Democratic Action Party (DAP) of holding a prayer meeting in Sarawak for Malaysia to become a Christian state.

"After the election, to celebrate their victory, for example, DAP held a thanksgiving event. During this event, among the things that were mentioned and prayed for was for Malaysia to be a Christian state," he was quoted as saying at a seminar on October 9.

The DAP said it will lodge a police report, while PAS leaders have distanced themselves from his statement, saying it was his personal view.

These latest controversies highlight the continuing tense relationship between the churches and the government, stoked by repeated clashes over issues like the ban on the use of the word "Allah" by churches and the impounding of Malay-language Bibles. Last year, the Utusan had also accused the DAP of conspiring with the church to set up a Christian state and elect a Christian prime minister.

Political analysts said these incidents have made Christians more politically conscious in recent years. Christians make up only about 10per cent of the country's population of 28 million, and the majority of them live in the hotly contested states of Sabah and Sarawak. Both these states contributed one-third of the seats won by the ruling Barisan Nasional in the 2008 elections. It suffered record losses then, but held on to power. The opposition is now trying to break its hold on East Malaysia.

Dr Bridget Welsh, a political scientist at Singapore Management University, said Christians may form a decisive group during the next general election.

She said that in the 2008 polls, Christians were estimated to have voting influence in 20 per cent of the constituencies.

"The government faces a challenge in representing these faith communities as it has allowed restrictions, seen as attacks on Christianity, from its ranks," she said.

On Monday, the Council of Churches of Malaysia demanded an apology from Utusan, saying it had misquoted two church leaders to make it appear that they were criticising Lim for trying to involve the churches in politics.

"A chief minister has many tasks and I do not see any peculiar reason why he should not meet pastors or priests," said Bishop Dr Solomon Rajah, whose Evangelical Lutheran Church is a member of the council.

But church leaders said they would stop at partisan politicking.

"The church does not carry political messages on the pulpit, nor does it tell its members whom to vote for," said elder Jimmy Ho of Elim Gospel Hall.

The government has sought to bridge this rift, with Prime Minister Najib Razak having met Christian leaders several times to discuss issues such as mission schools and land for churches.


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