Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Malaysian authorities confiscated Christian children’s books, claiming the illustrations of prophets such as Moses and Abraham violate Islamic Shariah law.

The independent news agency Malaysakini reported the Internal Security Ministry confiscated the literature from bookstores in two cities and one small town in mid-December.

The Malaysian Embassy declined to comment on the news service’s Jan. 11 report.

The Rev. Hermen Shastri, general secretary of the Malaysian Council of Churches, confirmed the report and accused the government of persecuting Christians.

“The officials have offended the sensitivities of Christians because their publications and depictions of their Biblical personalities have now become targets of unscrupulous Muslim officials bent on curtailing religious freedom in the country,” Mr. Shastri said.

“Immediate steps should be taken to amend administrative rules and regulations, especially in the Internal Security Ministry, that give a free hand to enforcement officials to act on their whim and fancies,” he said.

Christians, Hindus and other religious groups in Malaysia say they are increasingly being targeted as the nation gradually cedes jurisdiction to Shariah courts.

The U.S. State Department estimates that about 60 percent of Malaysians are Muslim, with the remainder being Christians, Buddhists, Hindus or belonging to other sects.

The books confiscated from Johor Bahru, Senawang and Ipoh offended the sensibilities of Muslims, officials say, because Islam forbids the depiction of prophets.

Islam forbids images of the prophet Muhammad, but other images such as portraits of early Muslim leaders Ali and Hussein, the prophet’s son-in-law and grandson, respectively, are common in Shi’ite Islam.

The books were confiscated by officials from the Publications and Koran Texts Control Department, a division of the Internal Security Ministry headed by Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi.

The prime minister is an Islamic scholar who promotes the concept of “Islam Hadhari” or “Islamic Civilization.”

Bernama, the Malaysian National News Agency, reported last week that Mr. Badawi stated the West should acknowledge there are civilizations today that continue to uphold religious values in the public sphere, even if many Western governments and societies do not.

In remarks to a forum in Madrid called the Alliance of Civilization, he also said Islam is a religion that respects religious and cultural diversity.

The Malaysian government last month also banned the use of the name “Allah” in any religion other than Islam, local press reports said.

Allah, the Arabic word for “God,” is used by both Christians and Muslims throughout the Arab world.

Christian and Sikh religious literature in Malaysia often uses Allah to refer to God.

Church leaders have filed complaints in civil courts arguing that the Allah rule infringes on religious freedom.

A string of prominent religious conversion cases recently has been criticized for granting special privileges to Muslims in the multiethnic and ostensibly secular nation.

Article 3 of the Federal Constitution states the official religion of Malaysia is Islam, but Article 11 protects the right to religious freedom.

The Kuala Lumpur High Court ruled Friday that the wife of a Christian Malaysian who died Dec. 30 could be buried by her husband.

The ruling overturned a decision by the Federal Islamic Territorial Council, which claimed the woman converted to Islam six days before she died.

The High Court hearing marked a departure from civil court precedents in which Islamic matters are typically ceded to Shariah courts.

Angela Wu, the International Law Director of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, called the procedure a “horrible Catch-22.”

“The civil courts are saying they aren’t competent to decide whether someone is a Muslim where Islamic interests are invoked,” Ms. Wu said.

“Only the Shariah courts can decide whether you are a Muslim — and the Shariah courts will not hear the testimony of non-Muslims.”

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