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Religious Freedom for the Church Post-Herald

5 November 2014

Religious Freedom for the Church Post-Herald

by Eugene Yapp


Recent events in Malaysia have propelled the discourse on religious freedom and fundamental liberties to new heights. The unexpected raid on the Bible Society at the beginning of the year once again tossed the Allah/Alkitab issue to the forefront in Christian-Muslim relationship. This incident further adds fuel to the already ongoing tension between Christians and Muslims since the Court of Appeal's decision on the Catholic Herald last October that ruled the use of the word "Allah" is not integral and essential to the Christian faith.

The decision by the Federal Court to not grant leave to the Catholic Church to appeal has left important questions pertaining to freedom of religion unanswered. This is unfortunate. But what is however clear is with the Federal Court's decision, the decision of the Court of Appeal remains as law. The Court of Appeal's decision is not limited to Peninsula Malaysia and applies to both Sabah and Sarawak regardless of the often quoted 10 point solution and the opinions of different ones. Various groups have expressed their disappointment with these decisions and some believe that Christian-Muslim relations are expected to worsen.

It is indeed puzzling the Federal Court was of the view that the Home Minister had exercised his discretion rightly under the Printing Presses and Publication Act to impose the condition prohibiting The Herald from using the word "Allah" in its Bahasa Malaysia publication thereby affirming the Court of Appeal's decision.

Following this decision, Christians in the country are now expected to practise their faith in a way that must avoid confusing and offending Muslims sensitivities. It has often been said that such a wide ranging judgment has the effect of relegating other religion and their practises into the private domain away from the reaches of Islam. Only then, can one safely say that confusion and Muslims' sensitivity would not arise. But if this were to happen, it would surely imply religious space for the non-Muslim is now reduced and should never be at the forefront of public life in Malaysia. Christians in Malaysia should now be content with practising their religion in the confines of their own church premises and to avoid activities that could potentially offend the Muslim community. Is this acceptable for the non-Muslim community in general and the Christian community in particular?

On the onset, we should note that in much of Asia as it is in Malaysia, religion has a dominant role to play in community and nation building. Religion in Malaysia has a positive contribution in that it informs morality, inject moral values and judgments that are so essential to law and policy. Our quarrel is not whether religion should play a role in policy making or legal considerations but that every religion should have their say to define and come to what is the good for all in society recognising that in essence, we are a plural society with a multi-religious setting. Hence, to assert that Islam being the religion of the Federation and that all other religion may be practised in peace and harmony in relation to the sensitivities of Islam is contrary to the spirit of our constitution as well as our national polity.

But the Court of Appeal decision also presented another formidable challenge for the church in Malaysia. In addition to saying that the use of the word "Allah" is a practise that is not essential and integral to Christianity, it went on to state that religious practises are not a fundamental right but a privilege. The effect of such a statement is that one must now proof that a particular practise is a religious practise of that religion. It implies that only religious practises that are essential and integral part of the religion is protected and guaranteed under the constitution. What is not essential and integral is not protected and guaranteed under the constitution. Such a position is really not new and has its support in case laws to the effect that the Government is entitled to forbid non-essential and optional religious traditions in the interest of public service or interest1. Is this position therefore tenable for the church in Malaysia?

For any religious group to exist freely and have a vibrant witness for the good of communities and the public life of the nation, freedom of religion must necessarily extend to all faiths and protect the practises of all religion including that which is peripheral and secondary. Failing to do so is failure to have religious freedom or complete religious freedom and will only amount to a restriction or constriction of religious space that would ultimately lead to greater social tension and hostility rather than greater liberty or democratic space for society.

Our Christian scripture is unequivocal that man was created in the image of God (Gen.1:26 & 27). As persons created in the image of God, we are persons of dignity. As persons of dignity, we who have been created in his image will also have freedom to choose and to act freely. This freedom to choose and to act must always be in relation to God; as a response to God so that we may truly enjoy the universal goods and rights recognised by our Christian political tradition2. Freedom of religion and the act of practising one's religion freely is therefore a fundamental human liberty that is divinely mandated and cannot be construed as a privilege given by another religious group or by the governing authorities. Such a truth is foundational and the Christian must uphold this truth all the time. It is also imperative for the church to harness this biblical truth to inspire and nurture engagement in the maintenance, the promotion and advocacy of greater religious freedom for all.

In promoting and advocating greater religious freedom, we recognised that we live in a multi-religious society. Hence, not all religious practises may be allowed if those practises bring harm or danger to another. Religious practises should also not be allowed if it impinges on public morality or disrupts the social order of the day that affects the peaceful co-existence of human lives. It is interesting to note that Professor Andrew Harding, who specialises in South East Asian legal studies and comparative constitutional law, questioned why freedom of religion means freedom to practise religion only in ways that are an essential part of that faith. Would not the correct question to ask according to Professor Harding is, whether there is any consideration that prevents a person from practising their religion in the way they think fit? The State must therefore adopt a minimalist position with respect to freedom of religion, i.e. the state should refrain from interfering with matters of faith and what constitute religious practises and confined itself to those matters that threatened and endangers the lives of other or actually disrupt public order. The State should let the various religious groups manage their own religion and sort for themselves what is permissible and what is good for the whole.

I am aware taking such a position is not the main stay of Malaysian politics since we have a religion that is historically regulated by the State and now the State wants to regulate other religion too. But that experience has proven defective with the recent spate of Allah court cases. Dr Timothy Shah has demonstrated that to allow religion free space to find their own equilibrium in their relationship with other religion and what is good for the common is a better option. Of course, state institutions and state actors will never agree to this because it presupposes a level playing field, but that is what Christians in Malaysia and those of us canvassing for complete religious freedom must now work and strife for.

In this respect, it is imperative that the church strengthen herself and remain strong in the crossroads of our nation's destiny. The quest for a plural society and democratic way of life is an urgent priority in nation building. This requires Christians and all citizens alike to seek a country informed by a very different narrative; a secular polity governed by the rule of law and fundamental democratic principles rather than a religious state empowered by the efficacy of a religious bureaucracy. The key is to enhance space for complete religious freedom but to do so, the church must be equipped to undertake the real task at hand by offering an alternative voice, an ideal that is shaped by our Christian faith as to what it means to live as free moral citizenry, in peaceful co-existence with one another based on an autonomous civil society with mutual respect and acceptance alongside a strong democracy and public institutions of justice for the good of all.


1 Hajjah Halimatussaadiah Hj Kamaruddin v Public Services Commission Malaysia & Anor [1994] 3 Malayan Law Journal 61
2 The universal goods as recognized consists of the spiritual as well as the physical satisfaction that comes from our stewardship of creation, admiration of the aesthetic beauty of the created earth, the exclusive sexual communion in marriage and of procreation and the rest we have in desisting from our labour in order to render worship to God



Harding, Andrew. 'Language, Religion and the Law: A Brief Comment on the Court of Appeal's Judgment in the Case of the Titular Roman Catholic Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur. Assessed on 20 October 2014

O' Donovan, Joan. "Freedom, Law and Moral Community in the Christian Political Tradition". Paper presented at the KAIROS/INFERMIT Consultation on Democracy & Constitutionalism in the 21st Century, March 2006

Shah, Timothy Samuel. Religious Freedom [Why Now?] Defending an Embattled Human Right. Princeton, NJ: Witherspoon Institute, 2012


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