Malaysian Christians face a dual challenge to their religious rights and the long-term health of their Church. They cannot talk to Muslims about their faith because of a clause in the Federal Constitution making it unlawful, and also they themselves are targeted for conversion to Islam, the religion of 90 per cent of the population.
The ban on proselytism has its roots in Malaysia’s pre-independence days.
In 1511 Europeans arrived on the Malay Peninsula bringing Christianity with them. But the climate for sharing their faith changed in 1874 when, under British rule, a trade agreement – the Treaty of Pangkor – was signed that had a clause stopping Christians interfering in local religion.
Since the treaty, Christians are officially free to evangelize to anyone except Malay Muslims. As a result the Church ignored Muslims, and instead evangelized non-Malays through missionary schools. Today many Malay Chinese and Indians send their children to these schools – known for academic excellence – often resulting in the birth of vibrant local churches.
However, despite Malaysia’s first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman being emphatic that “there is no way we can have an Islamic State here….we cannot force the non-Malays and non-Muslims to follow our way of life,” the spread of Islam did lead to it being designated as the ‘state religion’. Christian missionary schools were taken over by the state and forced to accept Muslim children and teachers. This led to a ban on public displays of Christian symbols – such as wearing a cross – in schools.
Now the schools exist only in name, having lost their Christian character and become like other public schools in the country, where all students must study Islamic history.
And while Malaysian Christians are denied their right to evangelize, well-funded Islamic missionary groups, supported by the government, are free to try and convert Christians to Islam.
The East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak, with their high number of Christians, are targets of Islamic evangelizing.
The government’s success in taking over Christian missionary schools in Sabah and Sarawak, when they joined Malaysia in 1963, was just the beginning. More concerted efforts have been employed to expand the influence of Islam across the two states (where two-thirds of the country’s Christian population live).
Dakwah (missionary activity) is how Islam is spread, particularly in Sabah state, seen as the pilot project of Islamization.
Dakwah approaches have been seen as deceptive and criticized by 47 prominent personalities in Sabah in an open letter to the government. They wrote:
“In Sabah and particularly in the interior, aggressive Islamization activities are being carried out by both covert and overt means to convert especially natives through intimidation, deception, or inducement, particularly targeting remote and poor villagers.
“Conversion ceremonies are being carried out under the guise of providing ‘financial assistance’ to poor natives and native school children especially those living in government hostels [boarding homes].
“The National Registration Department, despite its denials, is also labelling native Christians with ‘bin’ or ‘binti’ [a Muslim word that precedes the surname] in their names, [and registering them] as Muslims in their identity cards without their knowledge or consent.
“The drive to increase the Muslim population of Sabah by the granting of ID cards to illegal Muslim immigrants has been a long standing bone of contention of genuine Sabahans against both the state and Federal Governments.”
“We are not against conversions out of free will,” they added, “but we condemn conversion done through deceit, intimidation and bribery.”
Churches in East Malaysia are now aware of dakwah activities, but the majority faith in Sabah is now Islam and, as a result, the state government has been able to pass an apostasy law and a ban on Christians using the word Allah for God.
Sarawak is now the only state in Malaysia with a Christian majority. Yet, it finds itself in contention with the government over religious liberties: the Allah ban, the confiscation of local language Bibles, and a citizen’s right to legally change religion to Christianity, as in the case of Rooney Rebit. It remains the only state without an anti-apostasy law.
Rebit, a 41-year-old Sarawakian Christian, was converted to Islam by his parents at the age of eight. He tried to change his religion in his identity card from Islam to Christianity, but failed. The National Registration Department (NRD) required him to obtain permission from the Sharia Courts to “apostate”.
As a Christian, he refused to be subjected to the Islamic courts, and sued the NRD to compel them to make the change. He won his case at the Sarawak High Court, but the NRD appealed it. Nearing a general election in 2013, Prime Minister Najib Razak promised that the NRD would withdraw its appeal, but it remains to be seen whether the promise was sincere or just another political maneuver.
East Malaysian native Christians share similarities with the Malay Muslims in West Malaysia —ethnically, linguistically and culturally, they are alike. These cross-religion friendships give Christians opportunities to speak about their faith – not directly, which is illegal, but in response to Muslims trying to proselytize them. A growing number of Christians are being trained in apologetic skills for this purpose, in hopes to reverse the decline of Malaysia’s Christianity.
GO DEEPER: How Malaysia’s form of Islamization is eroding religious freedom