KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is in Rome for a two-day working visit which includes an audience with Pope Benedict XVI.
Mr Najib’s visit to the Vatican was planned before street protests rocked the Malaysian capital two weekends ago.
The scheduled meeting with Pope Benedict XVI is essentially to establish diplomatic relations with the Vatican.
Malaysia is among 16 countries in the world that have no diplomatic ties with the Roman Catholic church.
Even Muslim countries like Indonesia, Iran, Iraq and Pakistan have existing diplomatic links with the Vatican.
But this is not the first meeting between a Malaysia prime minister and the head of the Catholic church.
In 2002, then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad met Pope John Paul II in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks in the US, to talk about Muslim-Christian relations.
Malaysia is seen as a voice of moderate Islam and Mr Najib wants to build on the country’s standing in promoting interfaith relations which remains a challenge both back home and abroad.
Reverend Dr Thomas Philips, president of Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism, said: “PM has always been championing the causes of moderate Islam.
“This will definitely raise the status of Malaysia in the world that we are moderate and will engage with everybody.”
Mr Najib’s administration hopes the meeting with the Pope will also send a clear signal that the government cares about Christians who form 10 per cent of Malaysia’s population and help mend the strained relations with the Christian community, especially after a series of incidents this past year – including the firebombing of churches.
The attacks on places of worship were sparked by a High Court decision allowing a Catholic weekly to use the word “Allah” to describe god in the Malay version of the Bible.
There was also unhappiness over the government’s decision to limit the import of Malay-version Bibles, which the authorities worry will confuse the country’s majority Muslim community into converting.
Dr Thomas Philips said: “I don’t think one visit is going to create an impact but the fact that he shows that he’s willing to recognise and engage with the Christian leaders and to go to the extent of having diplomatic ties, it’s a positive step.”
Fui Soong, CEO of Centre of Strategic Engagement, said: “I don’t think a visit like this is going to be enough to say I am doing something about it. People want to see concrete actions.”
Many Christians are still waiting for a definitive answer from the Court of Appeal that the word “Allah” is not the exclusive use of the Muslim community.
Source : Channelnewsasia.com