IT’S the sort of religious madness that one might expect in India or Pakistan but certainly not here in Malaysia.
Except for a few cases in the past, destruction of places of worship is unheard of as we have long learnt to respect each other, way before cross-culturalism became a fashionable word in the Western world.
Last week’s torching of the Metro Tabernacle Church in Desa Melawati in Kuala Lumpur was a rude jolt to religious relations in the country. It was a black day in our history, to put it bluntly.
In the name of God, people have gone to war, slaughtering innocent people as their self-righteous leaders quote selectively, often wrongly but convincingly, from their holy books to justify their actions.
The history of religion is littered with such extremism although the perpetrators know that killing is unacceptable. In contemporary history, Muslim Bosnians have been killed by Christian Serbs and today, al-Qaeda operatives blow up buildings in the name of Allah.
But even as we try to come to terms with the arson at the church and attempts at two other churches, it is heartwarming to know there are many Malaysians who readily stand up and condemn the despicable acts.
It is important to note that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak and Home Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein have led in the condemnation of the arson.
Many Muslim personalities encouraged others to join them and show up at the Metro Tabernacle Church to give moral support by sending out text messages and Tweets.
The witnesses, who readily came forward to assist the police, included Muslims in the area, according to senior pastor Rev Ong Sek Leang, whom I spoke to on Friday evening.
The gang who threw the home-made explosives into the Metro Tabernacle Church had done it brazenly. It may have been well after midnight but there were still people in the area.
The Muslims in the area were familiar with the activities of the church and the people who run it. After all, the church has stood there for the last 12 years, co-existing peacefully with a surau across the church.
There was no animosity between the Muslims and the church, and the church does not even have a Bahasa Malaysia worship session.
Located in a predominantly Muslim area, the church was certainly aware of its minority status and has certainly been sensitive to its surroundings. It has plans to move to new premises near Batu Caves but is still struggling with bureaucratic problems put up by the Selayang local council. The church could certainly do with speedier approval from the Selangor state government, under which the council comes. There would be much goodwill if financial support also came from the federal and state governments.
As I write this article, several Muslim corporate figures have called to say they wanted to make donations to the church. These are gestures that we should commend. But in the minds of many Malaysians, especially Christians, the question is where we move from here.
As minorities in this country, non-Malays and non-Muslims are aware of their precarious positions and no one can argue that they put up much self-restraint for obvious reasons.
They know the backlash if they are too vocal or too demanding but they also feel that they enjoy the protection of the constitution. Many a time there is the perception, rightly or wrongly, that they have been taken for granted.
Many of the decisions reached on certain contentious cases involving the church may have the support of the leadership but along the way, they are sometimes ignored by lower ranking bureaucrats. This is where misunderstandings or pent-up frustrations begin to start.
Unless our leaders have the political and moral courage to take principled decisions on religious issues involving the church, we would merely postpone the problems.
Take, for example, Christian literature; the reality is there is now a whole generation of young Malaysians who are more proficient in Bahasa Malaysia. This is the product of the school system which replaced English with Bahasa Malaysia.
We cannot possibly tell them that they cannot read the Bible in Bahasa Malaysia. Their option is Bahasa Indonesia and that version of the Bible is also confiscated.
The largest number of Christians today are Sabahan and Sarawakian bumiputras, who prefer Bahasa Malaysia. The fastest growing church has a Malay name – the Sidang Injil Borneo (SIB) – which also enjoys the same popularity in the peninsula.
Indonesian workers also attend church services here every Sunday. Certainly, we don’t expect them to read the King James Version of the Bible, which even the English educated struggle with.
Setting up churches and getting approvals from the local councils is, to put it mildly, extremely challenging.
Reading through the many messages posted by young Malaysians on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, there is a sense of pessimism. We should be providing hope and assurances to them.
More than ever, there is a need for regular consultation between Muslim and non-Muslim groups at formal and informal settings. At present, there is none at a structured level between learned Muslims and non-Muslims. Prominent personalities with strong links to Christian and Muslim groups should also meet regularly to forge bonds and emphasise common areas.
The church groups need to also understand that the majority Muslims do not want other non-Muslim groups to use the world “Allah”. We have listened to the arguments of both sides, including the historical perspectives but there is no logic when it comes to matters of faith.
But a court decision should not be the end of all matters. Consensus could still be reached if the right initiatives and compromises are taken. The challenge to our Malaysian leaders, whether political or religious, is simple – have the courage to do what is right for Malaysia and not just try to say the right things. That’s all Malaysians ask for.