Malaysia Premier Is to Meet With the Pope

By Sunday July 17th, 2011 No Comments

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia is scheduled to meet with Pope Benedict XVI in Italy on Monday, in a visit that analysts say is intended to signal a wish to mend ties with the country’s Christians after a series of episodes, including the firebombing of churches, that have strained interfaith relations in Malaysia, a Muslim-majority nation.

The talks at Castel Gandolfo, the pope’s summer residence, are expected to touch on the possibility of Malaysia’s establishing diplomatic relations with the Vatican.

Malaysia, where Christians make up 9 percent of the population, is one of the few countries without diplomatic ties with the Vatican. Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and many other predominantly Muslim counties already have diplomatic relations.

Though Islam is the official religion in Malaysia, the Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of religion. There are about 850,000 Catholics in Malaysia, which has a population of 28 million.

In recent years, Christians and other religious minorities have expressed concern over what they view as the increasing dominance of Islam in Malaysia. In addition to the firebombing of churches, Malay-language Bibles have been seized by the authorities in a dispute over whether Christians should be allowed to use the word Allah for God.

Analysts say that Mr. Najib’s meeting with the pope is intended to demonstrate to Malaysian Christians that the government considers their religion important enough to warrant a state-level visit.

“Muslim-Christian relations in Malaysia have taken a hammering since the Badawi period,” said Farish Ahmad Noor, a political scientist at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, referring to Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who was prime minister from 2003 to 2009. “And many Christian groups now feel that they have been neglected by an uncaring government.”

“But the Najib administration has to show once and for all that it will not allow the harassment of Christians to continue in the country,” Mr. Farish said.

Since Mr. Najib became prime minister in 2009, he has sought to project Malaysia as a moderate Muslim-majority nation.

Shamsul Amri Baharuddin, the head of the Institute of Ethnic Studies at the National University of Malaysia, said the federal government had made many attempts at interfaith dialogue in recent years. But these attempts have not been very successful, he said, in part because many aspects of religious practice are controlled by the state, like regulations regarding Muslims who renounce the faith.

Forming ties with the Vatican would contribute to Mr. Najib’s “1Malaysia” policy, which promotes national unity and inclusiveness, Mr. Shamsul said.

The Rev. Lawrence Andrew, editor of The Herald, the Roman Catholic Church’s weekly newspaper in Kuala Lumpur, said he thought the country had not previously pursued diplomatic relations with the Vatican out of a fear among many Malaysians that Christians would try to convert Muslims. But he said that this concern appears to have diminished in recent years.

“They have seen that the Catholics are not the type who go and proselytize and convert the Muslims,” he said.

In Malaysia, ethnic Malays are automatically considered Muslim. Muslims who wish to convert to Christianity must obtain permission from Islamic courts, but it is rarely granted.

Religious tensions were reignited in May when a Malay-language newspaper published a report alleging that Christians wanted to make Christianity the country’s official religion, a contention vehemently denied by Christian leaders.

Father Andrew said that while there may still be a “pocket of people” who champion the rights of Muslims over other groups, he sensed that Malaysia as a whole was becoming more accepting of other religions.

“There’s an opening up,” he said, adding that he views the meeting with the pope “as a positive thing.”

Source : The New York Times

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