ROME: Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak arrived in Rome Sunday for a two-day working visit which includes an audience with Pope Benedict XVI and a meeting with Vatican secretary of state Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.
He was received by Ministers in the Prime Minister’s Department Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon and Datuk Seri Jamil Khir Baharom.
In earlier reports, a top official had said the meeting with the pope was to show Malaysia’s respect for all religions.
Last month Najib met with Malaysian church leaders in a bid to ease religious tensions stirred by a report that alleged Christians wanted to replace Islam as the official religion.
The row is one of a string of religious disputes in recent years that have raised fears among minorities that the country is being “Islamised” and that their rights are being eroded.
Religion and language are sensitive issues in multi-racial Malaysia, which was hit by deadly race riots in 1969.
According to another government official, previously Malaysia did not see a need to establish ties with the Vatican and there were political concerns such a move would be criticised by the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party.
Neighbouring Indonesia and other mainly Muslim countries including Pakistan have decades-long diplomatic ties with the Vatican.
The planned meeting with the pope comes as Najib ponders calling a snap election in the next few months.
The ruling Barisan Nasional coalition is struggling to regain support from ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities who swung towards the opposition in landmark 2008 general elections.
Last year there was a spate of attacks on churches after the High Court decided to lift a government ban on non-Muslims using “Allah” as a translation for “God”.
The government has strongly criticised the attacks, but has been accused of stoking Malay nationalism so as to protect its voter base after the opposition gains.
In 2002, former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad met Pope John Paul II for talks on Christian-Muslim relations at the Vatican.
Source : Channelnewsasia