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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Fair treatment for all religious communities

The government’s stance is to allow religious organisations to function with the barest minimum of restrictions.

COMMENT

Much discussion and debate surfaces from time to time over the issue of freedom of worship in this country, and by allowing people and organisations of differing views to express and share their thoughts and opinions in civil discourses, invariably demonstrates that there is, to an extent, leeway given by the authorities which we should also rightly construe as being a form of freedom of expression.

While civil liberties are not seemingly found to be at the levels of satisfaction to some people in this country, hopefully, by persuasive argument and sound reasoning, more people can convince and enlighten the authorities to implement measures on freedom of worship for the collective good of all Malaysians.

However, it is imperative that how we approach the issue and how we approach the ruling authorities be in an appropriate manner always.

Now that the passionate flames of Christians over a number of their Bibles being withheld and later released by the authorities, and other scenarios emerging out of their beliefs, have started to flicker down, I would like to draw your attention to certain developments that have transpired since the formation of the country, from the time of the departure of the British colonialists.

The achievement of Merdeka meant a new beginning for Malaya as the country was called back then and the Christian community as a whole, be they Catholic, Protestant, fundamentalist or Pentecostal, enjoyed much freedom and liberty, along with the other religious communities, to practise and worship in the spirit of the newly-formulated Federal Constitution by the founding fathers of the nation.

Since then, five Malaysian premiers have passed through office, and all of them have freely allowed Christians and members of all other religious bodies to go about their activities as long as they were conducted in an orderly and organised manner.

While Malaysia today is still officially a secular state, Islam is the official religion as the majority of Malaysians are Muslims.

This does not mean that the Barisan Nasional (BN) government, which has been ruling since independence in 1957, has neglected the concerns and cares of the Christian and other religious organisations in this country.

Tolerant BN

On the contrary, in comparison to quite a number of other countries around the world, Malaysian Christians and other religious bodies enjoy sufficient freedom to practise their respective faiths without any unreasonable restrictions.

While cases of religious discrimination do exist, they are few in number, compared to the tolerant nature of the ruling BN that allows religious organisations to function with the barest minimum of restrictions.

It is precisely because of being given a “free hand” that religious organisations across the board go overboard with their demands and begin to take on a threatening stance once prohibitions are put in place.

(A clear example is the Christian group that met at a demonstration several months ago to threaten the government if their Biblical demands are not met.)

It’s a classic case of being spoiled rotten and silly until the government has to bow and pander to the whims and fancies of different religious groups in order to curry favour with them or risk losing voter support.

The religious history of Malaysia until now shows explicitly that not a single group, however irrational the faith or belief it practises, has been hauled up by the authorities, until they begin to undermine national security or take on an aggressive, militant stance.

Firm hand as opposed to free hand

Against this background, where liberty is given to religious organisations, there has emerged a significant number of groups with teachings that are counter-productive to the health and well-being of a secular state like Malaysia.

One has only to go through the list of religious organisations in this country at the Religious Affairs Department to see the number of “independent” churches that exist, each with its own version of Christianity unlike that espoused by mainstream and traditional churches.

In the case of Malaysia, because political mileage is usually gained by political parties playing the religious card, the government, realising the sensitive nature of issues of this kind, tends to compromise and give in for it to be viewed as a “wholly democratic nation”.

While political mileage gained by playing the religious card might be attained in the short term, what usually happens is that in the long term, whatever gains made fizzle out completely. This means that with issues affecting religious communities, the government should really deal with a “firm hand” and not a “free hand”.

Unhealthy and extreme religious groups must be dealt with firmly and the government must exercise its clout to nip the problems in the bud caused by organisations of this nature before they begin to fester and ignite the ever-so-delicate fabric of our multi-religious, multi-racial environment.

In doing so, the government has to been seen not only as acting fairly, and in a secular manner, but in accordance with the provisions of the laws of the land. There has to be a more open and transparent approach by the government to ensure, for the safety and security of the populace, that all religious communities toe the line.

Play by the rules of the game

Unlike a growing number of countries in the world today, Malaysia has, thankfully, been spared the wrath of religious flare-ups.

This augurs well for us. Since we are a fairly young nation, if we appear to be doing well in the practice of our individual beliefs, it is largely because government mechanisms in place to check religious tensions have so far been effective.

In view of the onset of globalisation, and the emergence of migrant workers as another force to be reckoned with in this country, to add to our already existing melting pot, there is a need for the powers that be to keep pace and put in place further mechanisms to ensure the success of achieving religious peace and harmony is maintained.

So far mainstream and traditional Christian groups have really no bone to pick with the government or any other quarter, however critical the criticisms levelled at them. This is a sign of the growing tolerance and accommodative nature of the mainstream and traditional churches.

The exception perhaps is that of the role of fundamental Christian groups with their own commercial kind of branding of Christianity.

What is being propagated by them should come not only under the scrutiny of the government but also by the various Christian denominations as to their validity and relevance in a country such as Malaysia.

If mainstream, traditional and even fundamental Christian churches do not appreciate the liberty under which they are allowed to operate, and take this liberty for granted, they should only have themselves to blame if they face punitive action for going overboard with their cause and demands.

While even members of other religious organisations contend that Christianity is a religion with many merits, Christians should learn to practise their faith by conforming to the law, unless and until these laws are amended.

Since the existing laws with regard to religious freedom have worked well so far, Christians and all other religious bodies should abide and seek changes to these laws, if they feel it is necessary, through the right channels and procedures, for the continued peaceful governance of the country.

If they fail to play by the rules of the game, Christians run the risk of not only being shunned and ostracised, they will also obviously continue to be a disgruntled and dissatisfied lot.

Perhaps what Christians should learn to do right now is to practise what they preach from the Bible and learn from the Master the virtue of showing tolerance and exercising mutual respect.

( File picture from internet )

Christopher Fernandez has been teaching and writing throughout Asia since 1984.

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