- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 15, 2009

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Malaysian police have arrested nine Christians accused of trying to convert Muslim university students ? a serious crime punishable by prison in this Muslim-majority country, a lawyer said Wednesday.

The suspects have denied the allegation, which could aggravate complaints by religious minorities that authorities are increasingly ignoring their rights in favor of Islam.

Proselytizing of Muslims by members of other religions is forbidden in Malaysia, though the reverse is allowed. Muslims, who comprise nearly two-thirds of Malaysia’s 28 million people, are also not legally permitted to change religion.

Police detained the nine in a hostel room at the Universiti Putra Malaysia near Kuala Lumpur late Tuesday, said Annou Xavier, a lawyer who is handling their cases and is a specialist in religion issues. He spoke to The Associated Press by phone from the police station where the nine are being held.

They claimed they were visiting friends, but a Muslim student apparently filed a police complaint accusing them of trying to convert Muslims, Xavier said.

“These allegations are baseless and untrue,” Xavier said.

The identities of the nine were not immediately clear. The Malaysian Insider independent news Web site said they were students belonging to a Malaysian Christian organization.

Zahedi Ayob, the police chief of Sepang district near Kuala Lumpur, said he could not immediately confirm the arrests.

Cases of non-Muslims preaching to Muslims are rare in Malaysia. Penalties differ for various states, but most provide for prison terms of at least two years. One northern state also prescribes a punishment of six lashes with a rattan cane.

Malaysia’s Constitution guarantees freedom of worship for minorities, who include Christians, Buddhists and Hindus. But Muslims who try to convert are often sent by Islamic authorities for counseling and rehabilitation, and some have also been imprisoned for apostasy for up to three years.

There was no indication that at Tuesday’s arrests were linked to a separate religious dispute involving Roman Catholics who complained about two Muslim men who posed as Christians and took Communion at a church service.

The men were researching a magazine article about unsubstantiated rumors that churches were converting Muslim teenagers. Police said Tuesday they were investigating whether the men had caused religious disharmony — a crime that carries a prison term of up to five years.

Minorities say their right to practice religion freely has been increasingly threatened by Muslim authorities in recent years. The government denies any discrimination.

Other ongoing problems include a court battle between the Catholic church and the government over a 2007 order banning non-Muslims from translating God as “Allah” in their literature. The government says its use would confuse Muslims, but Christians say the ban is unconstitutional.

Minorities also complain about the occasional demolition of their places of worships. In a separate case Wednesday, the High Court ruled that Islamic authorities in northern Kelantan state unlawfully destroyed a church in 2007.

State officials had said the church was illegally built, but the court ruled that the Christian villagers there should receive financial compensation.

• Associated Press writer Sean Yoong in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this story.

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