Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Molotov cocktails and banners against churches. Malaysian priest warns of escalating sectarian divisions

Two men on a motorcycle threw two Molotov cocktails at the church of the Assumption in Penang last night, only one of which exploded without causing serious damage or injuries . 

However, the gesture adds to concerns about a possible escalation of tensions between the Muslim majority and the Catholic community , already heightened by the controversy concerning the use of the word " Allah " to describe the Christian God. 

The attack is reminiscent of the wave of sectarian violence that hit the country in 2010, with dozens of churches and other places of worship (whether Christian or not) the target of terrorist attacks or acts of vandalism. 

The bomb attacks followed derogatory banners appearing outside three different churches in Penang with the inscription: "Allah is great, Jesus is the son of Allah." So far no one has claimed responsibility for the act, which has raised outrage among religious leaders in the area.

Local sources believe it is an attempt to provoke Christians using the tactic of "reverse psychology".

Malaysian police have opened an investigation into the events of yesterday and last night. 

The Interior Minister Ahmad Zahid is appealing for calm and hopes that "Christian and Muslim" leaders are able to maintain control and prevent further violence. "I invite each of you, individuals or groups - he added - not to give in to these provocative acts. What matters is harmony between religions".

The attack on the church and the provocative banners come in the wake of renewed controversy over the use of the word "Allah" for non-Muslims, which began following the confrontation - that ended up in a court case - between the editor of the Catholic weekly, the Herald, and the government. 

Last October, a judgment of the Court of Appeal effectively denied the Catholic weekly directed by Fr . Lawrence the right to print the word "Allah" when describing the Christian God.  The priest then requested to appeal the sentence.  

In Malaysia, out of a population of more than 28 million people, the majority (60 per cent) are Muslim, followed by Buddhists. Christians constitute the third largest group numbering around 2.6 million. A few years ago, a 400-year-old Latin-Malay dictionary was re-issued. 

It shows that Allah was used in the Bible as the word for God in the local language

Meanwhile, Fr. Lawrence is returning to the fray after a brief period of silence following his police interrogation of 7 January by the police and a possible indictment . In a lengthy interview Eglise d'Asie ( EDA ), the 68-year old priest said that the controversy is indicative of a "radicalization " of Malaysian society in place since the 70's and which was intensified in the recent past. 

The "racial" or "ethnic" divisions have become "a way of life , a very common way of being in the country." In this context, he adds, "it is better not to talk about religion" and it is no longer even customary for Muslims to wish Christians "Merry Christmas".

In view of the hearing on 5 March , Fr. Lawrence anticipates that "the verdict will be respected ," but the central point is that "Catholics in Malaysia should be able to continue to celebrate and pray in the Malay language".

Similarly, the Bible must continue to be printed in the local language, called "Al- Kitab " (The Book , ed.) .  In fact, Christians are banned from using 35 words of "common use", and this impediment "constitutes a blatant violation of religious freedom" guaranteed by the Constitution but disregarded in practice. In Malaysia, as in other parts of the world, there is a radical growth of extremist Islam and the youth of the minorities are increasingly encouraged to emigrate, to find greater space (and freedom) in more tolerant societies. 

"Among the Muslim-majority nations and in comparison with what is happening in the Middle East - said the priest - Malaysia is no exception in this respect".

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