Malaysian Government Relaxes Travel Restrictions on Christian Pilgrims to Israel

So, the Malaysia government suddenly decides to relax travel restrictions on Christian pilgrims to Israel? LINK Presumably, with the restrictions lifted, Christians should feel grateful to the government and vote more favourably for BN in the coming General Elections. But this is surely perverse logic.

It should be noted that the government treated the Christian community with contempt when it arbitrarily imposed restrictions on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It was not only a high-handed act; it was a grievous violation of the religious rights of Christians, as pilgrimage to the birthplace of any religion (in this case, the Holy Land of Israel/Palestine) represents a major ritual for believers.

Let’s be frank about the matter – the Malaysian government effectively robbed Christians of their religious rights. Of course, for reasons known only to itself, the government now decides to ‘return’ to Christians the freedom to travel to the Holy Land. But this is no reason for Christians to feel grateful. It was rightly pointed out that the relaxation of rules is not a ‘concession’ because of the coming General Elections. How can it be a ‘concession’ when the fundamental right was first unjustly taken away from Christians, and subsequently ‘returned’ to the them? Should Christians be grateful?  Well, imagine a robber having seized someone’s belongings, later decides to return the goods to the rightful owner for some inexplicable reasons. It makes no sense to ask the victim to feel grateful to the robber for his ‘concession’.

It should be stressed that fundamental rights (and not just religious rights) is not a gift or concession from any government. These rights are natural, inherent, inalienable rights of any human being. That’s why they are called human rights. The least that any government can do is not to interfere with these natural rights.

The Christian community hopes the Malaysian government will desist from further interfering/restricting the religious rights of the Christian community. Indeed, the Christians are not asking for assistance or financial subsidy from the government which is lavishly given to the Muslim pilgrims. All they are asking is, “don’t restrict our religious rights!”

It is significant that the government reserves the right to change the guidelines ‘subject to the security situation in Israel (guideline 8).’  I am not sure what ‘security situation’ may require new restrictions in the future.

First, I am sure the problem cannot be the case of Christian militants going to the Holy Land to assists some terrorists in their religious crusade. I am confident there has not been one single case of such religious fanaticism among Christians. Second, I am not persuaded that the government earlier imposed restrictions to ensure the safety of Christian pilgrims. As far as I know, there has not been a single case of injury or fatality resulting from some Christians being caught in some violent cross-fire between Israelis and Palestinian.

Many government officials are Muslims and as believers they should understand that any religious pilgrim whose faith is strong will not be deterred from making pilgrimage because of some possible security risks. Indeed, there was simply no evident security problems that could have justified the earlier curb on Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The fact that the government unilaterally imposed restrictions belies its claim to act out of concern for the welfare of Christians.

Even if I should grant the government the benefit of doubt regarding its concern for the welfare of Christians, there should have been prior consultation with the Christian community before imposition of restrictions on Christian pilgrimage. Unfortunately, there was no such consultation. The government has a track record of changing policy guidelines according to its whims and fancies. This being the case, guideline (8)  induces a sense of foreboding among Christians that their religious rights (pilgrimage) could again be curtailed in future.

In any case, the Christian community welcomes the present relaxation of restrictions on Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Am I grateful? Of course! But I am not grateful to the government for its generous ‘concession’. I am grateful to God that some human decency and respect for religious rights has returned to a government that has a nasty habit of interfering with the religious rights of Christians.

———-

Malaysian Insider December 19, 2012

Putrajaya lifts curbs on Christian pilgrims to Israel LINK

By Debra Chong Assistant News Editor

KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 19 — The Najib administration has rescinded its quotas, age floor and other travel limits imposed last year on Christian Malaysians wishing to make their pilgrimage to Jerusalem, say church leaders and a tour agent.

The Barisan Nasional (BN) government’s move, ahead of Christmas and national polls, is seen as a bid to win back dwindling support from the minority community that barely make up 10 per cent of the country’s 28 million-strong population but is regarded as a swing vote group in urban areas and crucial to the battle to reclaim the middle ground.

“Yes! Granted us all the concessions we asked for,” Rev Hermen Shastri told The Malaysian Insider in a text message yesterday.

Shastri, the secretary-general Council of Churches Malaysia (CCM), had previously criticised Putrajaya for “always shifting the goal posts” during meetings between government officials and Christian leaders, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported in July this year.

Christian Malaysians had voiced their unhappiness with Putrajaya after churches were allowed to send only up to 20 pilgrims to Jerusalem a year besides limiting their stay there to a week, among several constraints, acts they saw as further erosion of their religious freedom guaranteed by the Federal Constitution.

In recent years, the Christian and Muslim religious communities have been engaged in a tug-of-war over the word “Allah”, with the latter group arguing that its use should be exclusive to them on the grounds that Islam is monotheistic and the word “Allah” denotes the Muslim god.

While Malaysia bans travel to Israel, the government had previously shut an eye to Christian pilgrims journeying to the historic city regarded as holy to three of the world’s main religions — Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

An official with the Christian Federation of Malaysia (CFM) confirmed the umbrella body — which represents 90 per cent of the country’s nearly 2.8 million Christians — had last month received a letter from the Prime Minister’s Office informing that the government had relaxed the rules to allow Christian Malaysians to enter Israel.

LIST OF NEW TRAVEL GUIDELINES FOR CHRISTIAN MALAYSIANS

1. No quote on religious pilgrimages to Israel

2. No limit to the number of members in a tour group

3. No restriction on where to visit in Israel, subject to approval from Israeli authorities

4. No mininum age limit

5. No restriction on how many times a pilgrim can visit Israel

6. Maximum duration for visit to Israel is 21 days

7. The security while in Israel is the responsibility of the applicant

8. These guidelines can be changed subject to the security situation in Israel

“Taking into account the needs of Christian Malaysians, the Home Ministry has amended the religious pilgrimage rules to Israel as follows,” wrote Wong Nai Chee, political secretary to the prime minister in the letter dated November 28 sighted by The Malaysian Insider.

In its list, the government removed the quota on the number of Christian pilgrims per year; the number of pilgrims per church group; where Christian pilgrims can go in Israel; and the frequency of their pilgrimages; as well as extended the stay in Israel to 21 days from seven previously; and cancelled the 18-year-old minimum age requirement.

The new guidelines were effective from October 30, Wong stated in the letter.

According to the CFM official who declined to be named, it was the first time the government had issued any travel guidelines to Christian Malaysian pilgrims, a point backed by a local tour agent who has been organising travel arrangements to Jerusalem on behalf of churches for the last 15 years.

“Previously, the only black-and-white we received were when they rejected our applications,” said Inbam Solomon of World Discovery Travel.

She told The Malaysian Insider that prior to 2010, Christians in this Muslim-majority country have been freely performing pilgrimages to the holy city despite Malaysia having no diplomatic ties with Israel.

Then in January 2010, the government banned pilgrimages to the region, ostensibly due to heightened security risks posed by the long-running Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

When Putrajaya finally lifted the ban in April 2011, it tightened travel rules for Christian Malaysian pilgrims, Solomon related.

Her agency, which had helped organise pilgrimage tours for an average 2,000 Christian Malaysians before the 2010 clamp, saw the numbers severely cut by nearly 90 per cent.

Churches were also required to deal directly with the Home Ministry for permission to travel to Jerusalem, a role that had been performed previously by travel agencies, she said.

Christians were also subjected to additional scrutiny from the Home Ministry, including the police, and were required to submit their baptism certificates or endorsement letters from their respective churches to prove they were genuine followers of the faith, Solomon added.

Word of the government’s new travel guidelines have already spread among Christians, who told The Malaysian Insider they were heartened by the government’s decision.

“We are grateful we can once again go to worship in the Holy Land,” Catholic priest Father Lawrence Andrew said when contacted.

Andrew, who edits the country’s sole Catholic paper, had run a short news report on the new guidelines in last Sunday’s edition of Herald.

————————————-

The Star 20 Dec 2012

Government Relaxes Israel Travel Ban LINK

By Lee Yen Mun

PUTRAJAYA: Malaysia has relaxed restrictions for religious visits to Israel, lifting the quota on the number of pilgrims and allowing travel to anyone for up to 21 days at a time.

According a letter issued by the Prime Minister’s Office to the Christian Federation of Malaysia (CFM) on Nov 28, Christians can also, among others, visit Israel as many times as they want as well as travel anywhere, subject to approval from the authorities there.

Previously, pilgrimages to Israel were limited to 700 Malaysians each year, with only 40 from one church and a stay of only up to 10 days at a time.

The pilgrims, who must be at least 18 years old, were also not allowed to visit Israel more than once in three years.

CFM executive secretary Tan Kong Beng said the Home Ministry used to impose the yearly quota on the number of pilgrims to Israel, with which Malaysia has no diplomatic relations.

“There are now no more quotas for those travelling for religious purposes to Israel. The decision came after a meeting with the Government in the middle of this year.

“This is part of a consultation process with the relevant agencies,” he told The Star adding that he expected more Christians to apply to go to Jerusalem for religious pilgrimages.

He also refuted news reports that the relaxation of the restrictions, contained under an eight-point guideline in the letter, was carried out as part of a “concession” by the Government with the general election around the corner.

“It was a result of a consultation, a part of a process in which the Prime Minister has engaged with religious groups in dialogues to discuss issues and matters of concern to the public,” said Tan.

He said the guidelines were, however, dependent on the security situation in Israel, which was currently in a long, drawn-out conflict with Palestine.

“As far as we understand, the Government will not allow us to visit if there is a security situation in Israel, which is fair,” said Tan.

Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak‘s political secretary Wong Nai Chee confirmed that the guidelines in the letter, which was addressed to CFM president Bishop Ng Moon Hing, were effective from Oct 30 this year.

Israel is considered a place with many holy sites including Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus Christ, and Jerusalem for the 2.7 million Christians in the country, who make up 9.2% of the population.

It is understood that a 10-day visit to Israel could cost between RM8,000 and RM12,000.

——————————–

Malaysiakini 19 Dec 2012 LINK

Malaysia lifts curbs on Christian travel to Israel

Malaysia has removed quotas and other restrictions on Christians from the Muslim-majority nation making their pilgrimage to Jerusalem, government and church officials said.

The move comes after a string of clashes in recent years between the government and the Christian minority and ahead of national polls which must be held by the middle of next year.

Malaysia bars travel to Israel but the government has previously allowed Christians to travel to the historic city regarded as holy to both Christians and Muslims.

However, according to the Christian Federation of Malaysia (CFM), the government imposed a quota of 700 pilgrims per year, with any one church only allowed to send one group of 40.

Visits were also limited to 10 days and pilgrims were only allowed one visit every three years, CFM executive secretary Tan Kong Beng told AFP today.

But a letter sent from Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak’soffice to CFM president Ng Moon Hing (right) on Nov 28 said these limits no longer applied save that visits could be for a maximum of 21 days.

“But I think even Israel might not allow (such a long visit). We wouldn’t call these concessions as it was a process of consultation,” said Tan, who confirmed receipt of the letter.

Remain guarded

However, Ng was guarded about the move, noting that in the past, “one minister can say something but things turn out differently”.

“The letter should be issued from the Home Ministry,” he added.

Najib’s political secretary, Wong Nai Chee (left), confirmed that he signed off on the letter but did not give a reason for the move as “it is a cabinet decision and I am just relaying it to CFM.

“Taking into account the needs of Christian Malaysians, the Home Ministry has amended the religious pilgrimage rules to Israel,” he wrote in the letter seen by AFP.

Malaysia has largely avoided overt religious conflict in recent decades but tensions have simmered since a court ruling in late 2009 lifted a government ban on the use of ‘Allah’ as a translation for ‘God’ in Malay-language Bibles.

The ban had been in place for years but enforcement only began in 2008.

The 2009 ruling triggered a series of attacks on Christian places of worship using Molotov cocktails, rocks and paint.

Muslims make up 60 percent of the country’s 28 million people, while Christians account for about nine percent, most of whom come from indigenous groups in the Borneo island states of Sabah and Sarawak.

- AFP

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One Response to “Malaysian Government Relaxes Travel Restrictions on Christian Pilgrims to Israel”

  1. Paul Long Says:

    Thanks Doc. Agree with you. Except the analogy does not go far enough … It is like the robber giving back a couple of items not everything and then asking the one he robbed to be grateful, and warning that if you do not give them other stuff that you have when they ask, the robber has the right to come back and take back what he stole and “graciously” returned and kick you out of your house … :-(

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