A step forward in Muslim-Christian ties in Malaysia

Last Sunday, on April 28, it was reported that a group of Malaysian Muslims visited a church to show their solidarity with the Christian community following the horrifying Easter attacks in Sri Lanka. The group, known as the Global Unity Network, visited St Joseph’s Church in Sentul and observed the congregation at Mass, after which they engaged in a dialogue session with the church’s priest Father George Packiasamy. I have to admit that when I first saw the headlines, I was slightly shocked. But in a good way, of course.

Muslim-Christian relations in Malaysia have a rocky history. Since the government’s introduction of the Islamisation project back in the 1980s, Malaysian Christians have continuously expressed fears of encroachment into their rights and freedom to practice their religion. Much of their concern has had to do with practical issues. For example, the difficulty in getting land for the construction of new churches, and protests by local Muslim communities against the construction when the land is finally allocated to them. There was also the case of the ministry of home affair’s ban on the use of “Allah” in the Alkitab, the Malay-language Bible, and the Herald, the Catholic newsweekly.

The latter, known as the “Allah controversy”, was a long-drawn affair involving the ministry, the Catholic Church, the courts, and even Islamic NGOs. When the High Court ruled in 2009 that the ministry’s decision to prohibit Christians from using ‘Allah’ was unconstitutional and that Christians should be allowed to use “Allah” in their worship, Malaysia garnered public attention when several churches across the country were attacked. Clearly, the idea of Christians using the word “Allah” did not sit comfortably with certain segments of the Muslim community, and was even deemed to be a threat to national security.

Eventually, the High Court ruling was overturned by the Court of Appeal in 2013.

Throughout the affair, Christians bore the brunt of the politicisation of religion. It was not uncommon – and still isn’t – to hear certain Muslim groups and individuals referring to the Christian community as having some sort of “agenda” to convert Muslims and to take over the country, or that their use of “Allah” is a threat to the sanctity and supremacy of Islam and is an insult to Muslims.

For that reason, there is often this fear among some Muslims that if they were to visit a church, or if they were to engage in dialogue with Christians, they would somehow be converted to Christianity. Often times, Muslims are warned by their religious leaders and teachers to steer clear of such dialogue. The Christian community in Malaysia is therefore no stranger to misconceptions, prejudice, discrimination, violence and hatred. Hence, when I saw the headlines concerning this visit to the church, I was not only shocked, but I also felt a mix of worry and hope.

After reading the reports, I quickly scrolled down to the comments sections on various media platforms, worrying (and even expecting) that I would see snide remarks about how Muslims shouldn’t be stepping foot into a church lest their faith gets threatened. I found none. Sure, some said that the report was possibly fake news, while others anticipated that the Muslim visitors would face backlash for visiting the church. But on the whole, netizens responded with a sense of hope, expressing their aspirations for a Malaysia in which people of different faiths not only tolerate one another, but are open-minded and willing to engage in genuine interaction with one another. In fact, people said such visits should happen more often.

I too feel the same way. When I saw the picture of the Muslim women sitting among the congregation at Mass, I felt a sense of warmth and optimism. That picture in itself demonstrates to fellow Muslims that it is more than all right to be able to step into a church in peace and to be able to show compassion for others, regardless of their faith. Furthermore, it shows that they bring no harm upon themselves in going to the church, or any place of worship, for that matter. More often than not, people benefit from such visits as they are given the opportunity to directly engage with others and to allay their own fears and misconceptions. However, as one of the netizens said, perhaps these Muslims would face a backlash for their actions. Nevertheless, I believe that their actions, as well as that picture, serve as a powerful symbol of the hope for Muslim-Christian relations in Malaysia.

With the fasting month around the corner, some mosques and some Muslim families will probably be inviting Christians and other non-Muslims to join them in the breaking of their fast. While it is indeed commendable that Muslims are willing to invite non-Muslims to share the experience of Ramadhan with them, it is another and more inspirational step forward for Muslims to be able to step out of their comfort zone and to visit others in their places of worship.

However, this should not only happen in times of crisis, but should be something that we strive to do even when the local or global situation is relatively peaceful. It is therefore my hope that the visit of this Muslim group serves as an example to other Malaysian Muslims, as well as Malaysians in general, that it is possible to build a Malaysia in which open hearts and open minds trump bigotry.

Afra Alatas is a reader of FMT

The views expressed by the writer do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.