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Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Putrajaya should take the lead on religious dialogue, says former deputy minister

By JENNIFER GOMEZFebruary 05, 2014

Putrajaya's two ministers in charge of religious affairs should take the lead and organise a joint dialogue as soon as possible to address issues affecting interfaith relations in the country, said the chief of the Global Movement of Moderates (GMM).

Admitting that Muslim groups are currently not engaging the non-Muslims in inter-religious dialogue, GMM chief executive officer Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah (pic) suggested that minister in charge of Islamic affairs Datuk Seri Jamil Khir Baharom and Tan Sri Joseph Kurup, who is in charge of non-Muslims affairs, take the lead in this issue.

Calling it the "J and J collaboration", Saifuddin said both ministers should jointly chair a dialogue to facilitate better understanding on inter-religious issues, mainly on the use of the word Allah by non-Muslims.
Speaking at an interfaith forum titled "A Dialogue for Harmony" held in conjunction with World Interfaith Harmony Week, Saifuddin said, "no point for Tan Sri Kurup to chair his own dialogue and Datuk Seri Jamil to chair another".

"They should do it together, but how they do it, whether it is behind closed doors, will be up to them," he said, adding that he will raise the suggestion at the next National Unity Consultative Council meeting next week.

Jointly organised by GMM and The Society for the Promotion of Human Rights (Proham), some 65 people representing 40 NGOs were present at the session yesterday.

Saifuddin's suggestion was widely received by the participants, with some saying that both ministers should be given one month to organise the dialogue.

The former deputy minister for higher education summed up that it was clear that participants wanted to strengthen mutual understanding, tolerance and harmony among the different faiths in Malaysia and that they were looking to Putrajaya for better leadership.

"There is also the feeling that these issues need to be addressed urgently, especially on the use of the word Allah (by non-Muslims) and the raid by Jais (Selangor Religious Islamic Department) on the Bible Society of Malaysia (BSM), " he said.

Saifuddin added another channel was to engage with international organisations, such as the United Nations. He said that current religious conflict in Malaysia had already affected its international standing, seen in comments made by the UN Special Rapporteur late last year.

He was referring to the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, who had urged Putrajaya to reverse its decision to ban Catholic weekly Herald from using the word Allah to refer to God, warning that the case may have far-reaching implications for religious minorities in the country.

"That is why interfaith dialogues should be mooted. We have to show that Malaysians are capable of discussing issues in a civil manner.

"Interfaith dialogue is not about trying to say one religion is better or the best, but for each other to listen and understand the other person's perspective," Saifuddin added.

Co-moderator and Proham secretary-general Datuk Dr Denison Jayasooria agreed, and pointed out that those who were against the use of the word Allah by non-Muslims probably did not have any dialogue with Christians who prayed in Bahasa Malaysia.

"Possibly these people have not sat down with a Sabahan Christian who has been using the Malay bible since the time of their great grandfathers," he added.

In the 1980s, several states and their Muslim fatwa committees passed laws forbidding the use of the word Allah and several Arabic terms by non-Muslims. These include the 1988 Selangor enactment and the 1986 decree by the National Fatwa Council.

However, these laws were not widely enforced until 2008 when the Home Ministry banned Herald from using the term in the Bahasa Malaysia section of the publication.

The term is used by Christians who worship in Bahasa Malaysia and indigenous languages used by the bumiputera population of Sabah and Sarawak.

Two-thirds of Malaysia's 2.9 million Christians are from Sabah and Sarawak. Herald won a High Court decision in January 2009 that overturned the Home Ministry's ban.

The Court of Appeal, however, overturned that decision in 2013, saying that the word was not integral to Christianity. The church is appealing the decision.

Putrajaya, however, upped the ante last week when they sent a notice to Herald editor, Reverend Father Lawrence Andrew, "advising" him not to publish articles on the Allah issue in the Catholic weekly.

The notice, issued by the Home Ministry's publications and Quranic text division, stated that Herald should refrain from using any articles, or even letters, containing the word Allah as it would be in contempt of court, and also in the interest of "public safety" and "harmony".

The notice in effect serves to restrict the use of the word in the entire publication just months after the Court of Appeal affirmed the home minister's right to ban the word from Herald's Bahasa Malaysia section.

Prior to the notice, Jais raided BSM and seized more than 300 copies of the Bahasa Malaysia and Iban bibles, which contained the word Allah.

The raid and seizure raised the validity of the 10-point solution which was inked by Putrajaya and Sabah and Sarawak, which among others allowed bibles in Bahasa Malaysia and other languages to be imported and used in the country.

The 10-point solution was signed just before the Sarawak elections in 2011. – February 5, 2014.


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