The bridges that connect us as Malaysians are far more important than the walls that some want to build to accentuate our differences.
WE can all do with a bit of good news, which seems to be a rare commodity these days in Malaysia, where the voices of bigotry and extremism seem predominant.
It is good to read that all the 31 hymn books meant for the orang asli parishioners, which supposedly contained the word “Allah”, have been returned.
We are sure the 100 orang asli members from the Catholic church in Johor would look forward to singing praises to God during the Christmas mass.
In this season of Advent (traditionally, the Advent season lasts for four Sundays leading up to Christmas), it is appropriate that Father Cyril Mannayagam has said he wanted to put the incident behind him.
He has emphasised that the books are meant for the Bahasa Malaysia-speaking orang asli community living in Bekoh.
On a note of optimism, Father Cyril reportedly said there would not be any similar problems with the authorities in the future after explaining to the police the purpose of the books.
Father Cyril also said the parishioners had been using the word “Allah” for more than 100 years when practising their faith.
The hymn books titled Mari Kita Memuji Allah Kita (Praise Be to Our God) contained the word “Allah” and had a picture of a church with a crucifix printed on the front page. They were confiscated from a bookshop in Tangkak by the police following a tip-off on Dec 5.
The seizure of the hymn books by the police – and not the religious authorities – had caused uneasiness among Christians, coming so soon after the closure of the Bible issue in Selangor.
In the Selangor case, which dragged on for nearly a year, the crisis came to an end after the intervention of His Royal Highness the Sultan of Selangor himself to resolve the issue.
What was more disturbing in the case of the hymn books in Johor was that the police had described the books as “sensitive” and classified the case under Section 298A of the Penal Code for causing disharmony, disunity or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill will on the grounds of religion.
The unilateral involvement of the police was most unusual. After seizing the hymn books on Dec 5, the cops could not decide what to do, saying they had referred the case to the deputy public prosecutor on Dec 7.
The use of Section 298A has also been criticised by lawyers, who point out that the apex court had ruled as far back as 1988 that this section of the Penal Code is “unconstitutional” and cannot be used on issues affecting Islam.
It goes to show again how difficult it is when matters affecting the faith are subjected to legal and judicial interpretations.
We can be sure that these two cases in Selangor and Johor won’t be the first and the last because Bahasa Malaysia church services are conducted not only in Sabah and Sarawak, but also in an increasing number of churches in the peninsula.
This is the reality that we cannot avoid as a new generation of Malaysians, schooled in Bahasa Malaysia, would be more proficient and comfortable with Christian religious material in the national language.
It is also a fact that many Sabahans and Sarawakians are working in the peninsula. For practical reasons, we cannot be telling them to pray differently and use other versions of the Bible – those deemed appropriate by the authorities – when they are on this side of the South China Sea.
Let us not forget that many Indonesians working here are also Christians and like ordinary Malaysians, they also have spiritual needs. They too attend church services conducted in Bahasa Indonesia.
We need to find a middle ground that is acceptable to all. Common sense needs to prevail and we must understand and respect the state laws in place. As with any middle ground formula, not everyone would be happy but we would like to hear better solutions, if there are any.
The Bahasa Malaysia Al-Kitab that were seized from the Bible Society of Malaysia in Selangor and the hymn books in Johor have a distinct similarity – they were meant solely for the use of the Christians, and not for propagation to Muslims.
Churches in Malaysia understand the line and they will not cross it – it is an offence to propagate to Muslims and the usage of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims is also prohibited in many states.
But we also must take into account the historical practices of some Christians, especially native groups, and this is where the 10-point solution needs to be better understood and upheld.
It is a Cabinet decision and it is important that Federal and state agencies understand and respect the 10-point solution.
The Cabinet has reconfirmed the validity and its support for the 10-point solution, as was originally announced in April 2011, to manage the polarity of views between the various religious groups, in particular Christians and Muslims, taking into account the laws of the country.
As stated in the 10-point solution, for Sabah and Sarawak, there is no restriction on the import and local printing of Bibles in any language, including Bahasa Malaysia/Bahasa Indonesia and indigenous languages (referred to collectively as the “Alkitab”), as the Government recognises that there is a large Christian community of indigenous origin in these two states.
It is also in line with the spirit of the 18- and 20-point agreements, when Sabah and Sarawak became part of Malaysia. It has been argued these agreements allowed for full freedom of religion in both states.
The 10-point solution states that “as for Peninsular Malaysia, the Alkitab, whether printed in Malaysia or imported into Malaysia, must have the words ‘Christian Publication’ and the cross sign must be placed on the front cover as imposed by the Government in the interests of the larger Muslim community in Peninsular Malaysia”.
The paragraph above is important because in the case of the hymn books, they reportedly carried the picture of a crucifix, which would have clearly denoted that it is a Christian publication.
Sensibility vs sensitivity
There is no need for anyone to feel “sensitive” over a picture of a cross. In fact, churches become “centres” instead of “churches”, with local authorities flexing their muscles to show their displeasure over the word “church” on signboards. What more a cross outside the churches.
But to avoid unnecessary controversy, churches should consider stating boldly on all their Bahasa Malaysia publications that these are meant for non-Muslims.
Once this is explicitly stated, no individual or religious agency should have any reason to seize such publications on the grounds that they are deemed “sensitive”.
To put it in a simple way: it is like movie classifications. You do not go to a cineplex with your young children and choose a movie rated 18 or R because you know what they can or cannot watch.
These issues of seizing religious publications for whatever reason will continue to be with us because everyone will want to interpret the law in their own way. The religious authorities, the police and the Attorney-General can have differing viewpoints, which is why such matters continue to be played up in the press.
And all such reports will go global, giving the impression that Malaysia is becoming intolerant of other religions, even if they are isolated cases.
The 10-point solution, if given proper respect, can surely co-exist with the various state Islamic laws if the stakeholders can work out a practical arrangement, where an understanding can be reached and followed.
Some have correctly argued that the solution cannot have the force of law as it is only a Cabinet decision. But we as a nation have always shown we can agree on many things without them being written down in black and white. It is this musyawarah spirit that we must continue to build on, so we are not caught in legalistic battles over what can or cannot be done.
We, as a people, must love and care for one another to help pull this nation together. The bridges that connect are far more important than the walls some want to build to accentuate our differences.
Religion has never become so contentious in the history of Malaysia. It is frightening as groups seemingly compete for God’s attention and how we should call Him. So much anger has been invoked in the name of God and some of us have also unfortunately resorted to some very ungodly methods to push our agendas.
As we reach the end of the year, let us take the time to ponder and to extend the hand of friendship, to forgive and forget.
Regardless of our difference in religion, we must focus on the commonalities of respect, tolerance, compassion, patience, forgiveness and certainly moderation.
Let us not be afraid of the extremists with their hysterics because all religions teach us not to be afraid of men, whether kings, religious leaders or politicians, because they are mere mortals – but to be afraid only of God.
> This writer is deeply encouraged by the actions of the 25 eminent Malays and those behind #IamNo26 in their attempts to bring moderate Malaysians together. There is hope and we hope 2015 will see moderates make their voices grow louder. I also wish Malaysians a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.