Malaysia in religious row over 'threat of Christianity'

Posted at 03/30/2012 3:48 PM | Updated as of 03/30/2012 3:48 PM

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysian state religious and education officials have changed the title of a seminar on "the threat of Christianity" following outrage from non-Muslims in the multiethnic country.

Southern Johor state education officials faced criticism over the school teachers' seminar to be held Saturday that was titled: "Strengthening the faith, the dangers of liberalism and pluralism and the threat of Christianity towards Muslims."

The furore over the title follows allegations of Christian proselytisation in the Muslim-majority country after religious police raided a Methodist church event last August fearing Muslims were being converted.

State lawmaker Maulizan Bujang told the Bernama news agency the reference to Christianity would be removed from the title, saying: "The seminar aims to strengthen the faith of Muslims and it does not need to be politicised by any party that claims it (the seminar) is a threat to other religions."

But co-organisers from the state religious department said the seminar's content would remain the same.

"The seminar is part of the right of Muslims to defend the faith of its practitioners from any action which may lead to apostasy. It is our responsibility," an official told Bernama.

Opposition leaders say the ruling coalition, which is expected to announce national polls this year, is trying to woo back Malay support by using fear of other religions, after a swing vote saw the government lose control of a third of parliamentary seats and four states in 2008 polls.

Reverend Hermen Shastri, general secretary of the Council of Churches of Malaysia, said the government had to take a stand against the seminar.

"Of course we are disappointed, it derails the whole idea of harmony and mutual respect and understanding each other," he told AFP.

Malaysia has largely avoided overt religious conflict in recent decades but tensions have simmered since a court ruling in late 2009 lifted a government ban on the use of "Allah" as a translation for "God" in Malay-language bibles.

The ban had been in place for years but enforcement only began in 2008 out of fear the word could encourage Muslims to convert.

The 2009 ruling triggered a series of attacks on Christian places of worship using Molotov cocktails, rocks and paint.

Muslims make up 60 percent of the country's 28 million people, while Christians account for about nine percent, most of whom come from indigenous groups in the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak.