KUALA LUMPUR — A raid by state Islamic enforcers on a church function in predominantly Muslim Malaysia has stirred religious tensions and revived fears of growing Islamisation in the multi-ethnic country.
Officials swooped on a dinner at a Methodist church hall outside the capital Kuala Lumpur on August 3, saying they had information that a group of Muslims were being converted, which is prohibited in much of the country.
The relatively tame incident has unnerved some in one of Southeast Asia's most prosperous nations, where religion and race are intertwined and the various ethnic groups have generally co-existed peacefully.
The Damansara Utama Methodist Church denied the event was held to convert Muslims, but Islamic officials and pro-government media pounced on the case to allege a widespread Christian proselytising campaign.
Many Christians, however, dismiss the charge and say they face increasing pressure in a country whose ethnic Malay-dominated government has long presented Malaysia as a modern, ethnically harmonious Muslim state.
"I am very unhappy with the way Christians are being portrayed and why authorities are treating the community so suspiciously," Maria Varghese, 37, a Kuala Lumpur schoolteacher and ethnic Indian Christian, told AFP.
"We are not trying to convert anyone. We have friends of all races and religions and have lived happily for centuries. I don't understand why they are attacking us."
Half of Malaysia's population are ethnic Malay Muslims -- there are also sizeable Chinese, Indian and indigenous minorities -- while Christians from a range of races form nine percent of the country's 28 million population.
Overt racial and religious antagonism has been minimal in recent decades, following deadly race riots in 1969.
But an Islamisation trend has gained pace recently as the long-ruling government coalition vies for Muslim votes with the increasingly influential Islamic opposition party, Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS).
"Both Muslims and Christians have been carrying out missionary work in this country for centuries so this is not a new phenomenon," said Shamsul Amri Baharuddin, head of ethnic studies at the National University of Malaysia.
"But what is worrying is that this is now being politicised."
In 2009, churches were attacked with petrol bombs after a court 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.
Premier Najib Razak, head of the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), has called for national unity and met Pope Benedict XVI in July about opening relations with the Vatican.
But with a hotly contested election expected soon, the Damansara raid has triggered anti-Christian rhetoric by some ruling-party politicians, Islamic officials and UMNO-backed media.
A coalition of about two dozen Muslim civil society groups also issued a call to make apostasy a national crime.
Converting from Islam is already banned in most of Malaysia's 13 states and three federal territories which have Islamic Sharia courts that run parallel to civil courts. Muslims, however, are allowed to proselytise.
"As long as no one tries to convert Muslims, we can live in harmony with everyone," Ibrahim Salleh, 58, an elder at a Muslim prayer hall in the Kuala Lumpur suburb of Subang, told AFP.
"But if missionary groups try to exert their influence and erode Islam, then we must fight back."
The uproar has raised questions over the powers of the state Islamic Religious Affairs Department, known for its raids to enforce Islamic rules ranging from the alcohol ban to illicit relationships between unwed Muslims.
Christian leaders warn the church incident risked upsetting the country's delicate racial and religious balance.
"These actions are calculated at creating mistrust and tension among the various religions in Malaysia and people should know better than to try and stoke such tensions through baseless allegations," Reverend Thomas Philips, president of the Christian Churches of Malaysia, told AFP.
A survey by polling group Merdeka Centre conducted earlier this year showed the number of Malaysians who felt ethnic relations were good dropped from 78 percent in 2006 to 66 percent.
But with Najib widely expected to call an election soon, he faces an uphill challenge to defuse the situation, said Shamsul of the National University of Malaysia, "as he is head of UMNO, which champions Malay rights and Islam."
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