Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Church near KL removes cross following protests

Protests by Malay Muslims described as politically motivated by critics
By Shannon Teoh, Malaysia Correspondent In Kuala Lumpur, The Straits Times, 21 Apr 2015

A CHURCH just outside Kuala Lumpur has taken down a cross that was displayed outside the second floor of its premises following protests by a group of about 50 Malay Muslims, in the latest case of religious conflict that has attracted national attention.

But critics say Sunday's protest is politically motivated, pointing to the involvement of a local Umno branch chief, Datuk Abdullah Abu Bakar.

It is at least the second case against a church in a predominantly Muslim area in Selangor since last November.

It comes after the courts last year ruled against non-Muslims in a longstanding dispute over whether they can use the word "Allah" to refer to God. The dispute led to 351 Malay-language Bibles being seized in the opposition-held state in January last year.

Umno is struggling to win back Selangor which it lost to the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) alliance in 2008. The church is located in a constituency where the state assemblywoman is from Parti Islam seMalaysia (PAS), a PR component party.

Mr Abdullah, who is the older brother of Inspector-General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar, said yesterday the cross made some Muslims uncomfortable and that Sunday's protest was aimed at heading off "extreme ideas" that Muslim residents in Taman Medan were considering.

"Some of them had extreme ideas over what to do about the issue but we managed to stop them," he told reporters after meeting the Petaling Jaya mayor to find out if the church has a permit to operate.

Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who is an Umno vice-president, gave the assurance that the protesters would be investigated under the Sedition Act. In the past two months, dozens of opposition politicians and rights activists have been hauled up for alleged seditious activities.

"Regardless of who, if anyone touches on any religion, they are subject to the Sedition Act," Datuk Seri Zahid said yesterday. "In Umno, we have to respect other religions."

But Tan Sri Khalid said he had cleared his brother of sedition because the protest "did not touch on Christianity" but was about the church being in a 95 per cent Malay area. But he said the police would act "without bias" if the protesters were found to have broken any laws.

The Council of Churches Malaysia condemned the protest in a statement yesterday, saying it was not surprised that yet another such incident had occurred in the opposition-held state.

"It is obvious that there is a political agenda behind such acts from certain quarters, who are out to instigate and increase inter-religious tensions in the state," said the council's general-secretary Hermen Shastri.

The PAS assemblywoman, Haniza Mohd Talha accused Umno of again using "Islam for their political and racial agenda".

Selangor chief minister Azmin Ali called the demand for the cross to be taken down disrespectful to Christianity.

"I will not allow any elements of extremism to occur and hope that the police will investigate the incident in a professional and fair manner, so that such demands that can raise racial tension can be stopped. I also hope that those responsible for the protest will have action taken against them," he added.

Najib: Police investigating protest against cross
If found guilty, protesters may face action under amended Sedition Act
By Asrul Hadi Abdullah Sani, Malaysia Correspondent In Kuala Lumpur, The Straits Times, 22 Apr 2015

PRIME Minister Najib Razak has agreed that the police should investigate those who took part in Sunday's "cross" protest, which could see the protesters becoming the first to be charged under the newly amended Sedition Act.

"The Cabinet is of the opinion that they (the protesters) should have discussed with the relevant parties if there is any objection and not take action that can trigger unrest within Malaysia's multiracial community," Datuk Seri Najib said in a statement yesterday.

"Police are investigating the group that held the protest in Taman Medan. If they are found to have violated the country's law, action may be taken under the Sedition Act or existing laws."

Mr Najib reminded Malaysians to have an attitude of tolerance and mutual respect among communities of different religions.

Earlier this month, the federal Parliament passed a Bill to amend the Sedition Act. Among the amendments introduced, the Bill makes it an offence to excite "ill will, hostility or hatred" on grounds of religion and race. The new laws have yet to be gazetted.

On Sunday, a group of about 50 Muslim residents protested outside the church in Taman Medan, Petaling Jaya, to demand the removal of the cross, which they claimed was a challenge to Islam. The cross was taken down several hours later.

It was the latest example of rising Islamic intolerance that is fuelling religious tensions in the multi-faith country. The protesters' behaviour was criticised by moderate Muslims and also prompted calls for the government to take firm action against them.

And one day after saying there was nothing seditious about the residents' action, national police chief Khalid Abu Bakar yesterday promised that the police would investigate the protest.

One of those in the group was his elder brother, Datuk Abdullah Abu Bakar, a local Umno leader who said he was there to act as a mediator and make sure things did not get out of hand.

Yesterday, a group of over three dozen high-ranking - and mostly Muslim - former civil servants and diplomats led the calls for action with a statement labelling the protest as a "mindless act of hatred and intolerance".

Failure to act "will embolden religious extremists", said the group known as "G25" - 25 refers to the number of founding members - that was formed last year to push back against intolerance.

The G25, in its statement, said the protesters' behaviour has tarnished the image of Islam, the religion they claim to "protect".

"This abhorrent act of intolerance and bigotry against another religion's place of worship has no place in Islam and deserves the strongest condemnation," said the statement sent by its coordinator, Datuk Noor Farida Ariffin.

Other Muslim groups also have joined the chorus of criticism.

The Muslim Professionals Forum said the act of hatred and incitement against another religion's place of worship has no place in Islam and deserves unreserved condemnation. Sisters In Islam labelled the protest an act of extremism.

Local celebrity Wardina Safiyyah Fadlullah Wilmot also apologised to the church on Facebook.

Lawyers, including Malaysian Bar president Steven Thiru, have pointed to the right of Christians to practise their faith as enshrined under Article 11 of the Constitution. The Article states that everyone has the right to profess, practise and propagate their faith, but state and federal law may restrict the propagation of other religions to Muslims.

Democratic Action Party leader Lim Guan Eng urged Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi to order the police chief, Tan Sri Khalid, to step down temporarily until after the probe has been completed.

Amid questions whether the church is licensed to operate as a place of worship, the Selangor government said yesterday that it did not need a permit to operate on the basis of constitutional guarantees on the freedom of religion.

Churches 'do not need licence'
Malaysian interfaith council responds to cross protest
The Straits Times, 23 Apr 2015

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's interfaith council said yesterday that the Constitution does not require places of religious worship, including churches, to be registered in order to exist and operate in the country.

It was responding to a statement by a city council in Selangor's capital, Petaling Jaya, that said a church which was forced to remove a cross from its facade after a protest on Sunday was illegal.

Petaling Jaya City Council public relations officer Zainun Zakaria had said that the corner shop unit, which the church occupies, did not have a licence to operate as a place of worship and did not have a permit from the council to put up a cross.

"Article 11(3) states that each religion has a right to acquire property and to regulate its own affairs without any approval," said Mr Jagir Singh, president of the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism.

"So the question of illegality does not, at all, arise," he told The Malaysian Insider. "I don't know whether we require a licence to be able to pray... I don't think you do," Mr Singh, himself a lawyer, added.

Around 50 people had protested on Sunday against the church in the Muslim-majority area of Taman Medan over a cross on the facade. They had demanded that the cross be taken down and the church be relocated, saying it challenged Islam and could sway the beliefs of some Muslims. The church took the cross down hours later.

The Selangor state government, too, put the matter to rest yesterday when its State Committee on Non-Islam Affairs said that churches were allowed to operate in commercial premises without a permit and that they needed only to notify the committee.

The case was the latest religious conflict in multi-ethnic Malaysia, after last year's court ruling against non-Muslims over whether they could use the word "Allah" to refer to God. The dispute led to 351 Malay-language Bibles being seized in the opposition-held state in January last year.

Moderate Malaysians and critics had slammed Sunday's protests as a "mindless act of hatred and intolerance", while Prime Minister Najib Razak called for a probe under the Sedition Act, which makes it an offence to excite "ill will, hostility or hatred" on grounds of religion and race.

The Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) said it had urged that all parties involved in the protests be investigated and subjected to the rule of law at Tuesday's Cabinet meeting. In a statement, the MCA's central committee said the necessary action should be taken without fear or favour.

Datuk Abdullah Abu Bakar , the local Umno chief and a brother of the national police chief, was among the protesters in Taman Medan.

Even Batu Caves statues illegal if cross considered propagation to Muslims, lawyers say
TODAY, 21 Apr 2015

Claiming that an openly-displayed cross was considered proselytising to Muslims would mean all non-Muslim religious symbols must be banned, said lawyers critical of the Taman Medan church protest.

Constitutional lawyer New Sin Yew said the church in Taman Medan, Petaling Jaya, which was forced to take down a cross from its facade after residents in the Malay-majority area protested on Sunday (April 19), has the right to put up the religious symbol as an integral part of their Christian faith.

“It’s absurd to suggest that putting up a cross is a form of propagation to Muslims,” Mr New told Malay Mail Online.

“Houses put up crosses and altars for their religious practice and beliefs. If putting up a cross is a form of propagation, then no one will be allowed to put up any religious symbols anywhere anymore,” the lawyer added.

To illustrate, he said iconic structures such as the Lord Murugan statue at Batu Caves and the statue of Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy in Buddhism, at the Kek Lok Si Temple in Penang that would be prohibited.

Article 11 of the Federal Constitution states that everyone has the right to profess, practise and propagate their faith, but state and federal law may restrict the propagation of other religions to Muslims.

Local daily The Star reported yesterday that Taman Medan residents claimed that the church’s cross challenged Islam and could influence younger minds; the cross was removed several hours after the protest.

Civil liberties lawyer Syahredzan Johan said the legality of the church displaying a cross on its building depends on whether approval was obtained from the Petaling Jaya City Council, but stressed that it cannot amount to propagation of the Christian faith to Muslims.

He said that according to the Selangor Non-Islamic Religions (Control of Propagation Among Muslims) Enactment 1988, propagation offences require more than merely placing a religious symbol.

“There must be the element of persuading, influencing or inciting a Muslim to change faith for it to be an offence under the Selangor enactment,” Mr Syahredzan told Malay Mail Online.

He also denounced as “absurd” the protesters’ claim that the church cannot put up the cross because it is located in a Malay-majority area.

“The rights of minorities cannot be subjected to the whims and fancies of the majority,” said Mr Syahredzan.

“How many Christians must there be in an area for it to be acceptable to place a cross? 10 per cent? 20 per cent? 30 per cent? Any number one comes up with will be arbitrary, and in any event, Christians are a minority everywhere in Malaysia.

“The claim that the cross will influence Muslims has absolutely no basis. It’s quite insulting to Muslims, actually, as if our faith is wafer thin that any exposure to non-Islamic religions will destroy it,” the lawyer added.

Lawyers for Liberty co-founder Eric Paulsen urged authorities to protect minority rights and to uphold the principles of non-discrimination and equality, failing which Malaysia’s democracy would amount to the “tyranny of the majority”.

“Using the Taman Medan protesters’ absurd logic, Muslims in Myanmar and Sri Lanka would also have to be subservient to the rights of the majority Buddhists,” Mr Paulsen told Malay Mail Online.

“This is of course wrong and unacceptable as under a democracy, the rights of all citizens must be protected equally irrespective of the numerical strength,” he added.


Cross protest: Pastor thanks Malaysians, forgives agitators
The Straits Times, 27 Apr 2015

PETALING JAYA - A Selangor church thrown into the spotlight when Muslim protesters forced it to remove a cross from its facade thanked Malaysians yesterday for standing in solidarity with its congregation, as it held its first service since the episode last week.

Senior pastor Paul Packianathan of the Community of Praise Petaling Jaya Church in Taman Medan also thanked Prime Minister Najib Razak and Selangor Mentri Besar Azmin Ali for speaking up to defend the church in the matter.

Pastor Paul said the church does not hold any grudges against the group of about 50 protesters, who also asked the church to move out of the Malay-majority neighbourhood.

"We do not hold any grudge. We pray for forgiveness for all. That is why we forgive them," Pastor Paul was quoted as saying by The Malaysian Insider website after yesterday's service.

"If they are here, I will hug them now."

Several leaders of the opposition Democratic Action Party and members of the Malaysians for Malaysia movement were seen handing out flowers at the church and around the neighbourhood, to show their support for the church.

Detective Inspector-General of Police Noor Rashid Ibrahim said last week that the police had recorded statements from the church and those involved in the protest, including Datuk Abdullah Abu Bakar, the elder brother of Inspector-General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar.

Datuk Abdullah said that he had been merely an intermediary between the protesters and the church.

The case has been classified as sedition.

Although Mr Azmin has given the go-ahead for the church to put back the cross, the congregation has yet to decide whether or not to return the cross to its prominent position on the facade of the shoplot where the church is located.

"Are we going to put up the cross again? Right now, the answer is simple. We are waiting for the Lord to direct us on what we should do next," said Pastor Paul.

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