It is bad enough that Malaysian government officials continue to seize and detain the Al Kitab (Malay Bible) at their whims and fancies. It is worse as the government is supposed to have a gentlemen’s agreement dating from the mid 1980s with the leaders of the Malaysian Church that allows the Al Kitab to be used within church premises.
I shall first outline the historical trajectory of this gentlemen’s agreement:
In the early 1980s, the Ministry of Home Affairs banned the Al Kitab (Malay Bible) on grounds of national security. Of course, to avoid the suggestion that the government was victimizing the Church, it lumped the Al Kitab alongside some Malay books judged to be promoting deviant teachings on Islam. For good measure, some communist books were also thrown in to be banned.
The Malaysian Church leaders appealed to the government and a compromised solution was hammered out. There was to be no public display of the Al Kitab in shops, but 8-9 churches were allowed to import the Al Kitab and distribute it to Christians in Malaysia.
In 1986, the government came out with a list of 16 so-called Islamic words that were not to be used by other religions, words like Allah, Iman (faith), wahyu (revelation), nabi (prophet), kitab (scripture), and solat (prayer). Even the word injil (gospel) was banned. After some discussions with Church leaders, the government reduced the list to 4 words: Allah, Kaaba, baitullah and solat.
Note that while the government reduced the list, it maintained its position that it is the sole authority to decide what words may be used and what may not be used by non-Islamic religions. On the other hand, the Malaysian Church leaders have consistently rejected the authority arrogated by the government to ban usage of these words by other religions even as they continued to talked with the government in good faith to work out an just policy.
Fast forward to the years when Abdullah Badawi was Prime Minister. The government was concerned about challenges brought to the Court about its restrictions to the use of the Al Kitab. It was evidently embarrassed by coverage of this issue in the international media. One result was a suggestion from the government that churches be allowed to use the Al Kitab so long as the symbol of the cross and the caption, “A Christian Publication” is printed on the book cover.
The concession from the government amounts to an admission that it has no legal and moral grounds to prohibit the Malaysian Church from using the Al Kitab. This concession also calls to mind the government’s decision to back down from its earlier decision to ban the Iban Bible (Bup Kudus) after vehement protests from East Malaysia.
The government’s requirement for the imprint of the cross and the caption still amounts to religious discrimination. Why should only Christians (and not Buddhists or Hindus) be required to imprint the cover of their Holy Scripture? Nevertheless, the government suggests that the imprint on the front cover will help weak Muslims who are no strongly grounded in the Islamic faith from inadvertently reading the Al Kitab and coming under its influence.
It was taking into account the sensitivity of the government’s concern that Church leaders agreed to go along with the suggestion to imprint the cross and the caption on the cover of the Al Kitab. Still, it must be insisted that this is a gesture of peace and Christians reserve the right to use the words that the government has banned simply because Christians have been using these words for centuries, long before the Malaysian government makes their usage an issue for their political interests .
There is no end to surprises when one is dealing with the Malaysian government. It did not take long for the government to go back on its word. The past two years witnessed a series of events when government officials seized the Al Kitab and other Christian publications. More disturbingly, these government officials seem to be very high handed and uncompromising, and all too willing to defend their actions even though Christians have no choice but to seek recourse from the Courts.
1) The recent Court challenges initiated by Christians certainly point to the desperation of Christians in the face of a betrayal by the government. There were some suggestions that the Church take the government to Court when the government first issued a ban in the 1980s. This was a feasible option since the judges then were admired for their fairness and independent judgment even by judges from our neighboring countries. But the Church leaders opted to resolve their differences with the government through quiet discussion, all in the name of peaceableness – Why resort to confrontation if the matter could be resolved in a quiet and respectful manner? Presumably, the Church leaders expected the Malay officials to honor their verbal commitments. After all, Malays are proud of their saying, “Apa yang tersirat adalah lebih penting daripada apa yang tersurat – What is implied (in agreement) is more important than what is written.”
2) The government never once gave the Church a written statement that acknowledges the Church the right to preach, practice and propagate its faith in the Malay language implied by the fundamental liberties enshrined in the National Constitution. All that they have been giving (especially in meetings called up before General Elections) are merely verbal assurances.
Unfortunately, the Church finds out that these verbal assurances are never good enough. Sooner or later, some official s will simply ignore these verbal assurances and launch a new seizure of the Al Kitab and other Christian publications. Without any written guarantee, government officials feel they have no moral obligations to refrain from seizing the Al Kitab anytime now or in the future. I note that the affidavits submitted by these officials in the current Court cases simply regurgitate the original circulars from the Ministry of Home Affairs that banned the Al Kitab, without giving a hint of acknowledgment to all the verbal agreements/assurances given by some Cabinet Ministers to Church leaders in the past dialogues. In effect, the dialogue and agreements were so quiet that no officials seem to have heard of them!
I wonder if all the government does is just to play ‘good cop and bad cop’ with the Malaysian Church leaders. Perhaps, all their assurances represent just some form of temporary concessions from the Islamic point of view, that is, enter into a temporary truce – hudna – with the unbelievers until the Muslims gather enough strength to defeat them.
3) Since earlier verbal assurances have been disregarded when government officials repeatedly violated the fundamental rights of Christians when they seized the Al Kitab, Christians have to bring their grievances to the Courts. It is unfortunate that Christians no longer share the same confidence they had in the past about the ability of the Court uphold justice and give a fair and independent judgment, even in matters so fundamental as religious rights. But the Church has no choice but to go through the whole judicial process, hoping with feeble hopes that the judges will be righteous in discharging their duties without fear or favour.
4) Christians may have to reckon with the possibility that the Court might uphold unjust laws by affirming the government’s ban of the Al Kitab. The question is – will Christians then have to adopt passive resistance and continue to use the Al Kitab regardless of arrests and punishment?
More importantly, the ban on the Al Kitab puts Christians on the wrong side of the (wrong) Law. It conveys the nasty suggestion that Christians in Malaysia must be up to mischief and as such the action of the government is a good preventive action. Unfortunately, given the present ban, Malay readers in the country are unable to read the Al Kitab and come to an informed judgment for themselves.
I think the time has come for the Bible societies to put the Al Kitab online. Such a move will emphasize that Christians are open about what they believe and that they have nothing to hide. Christian spiritual authenticity will be evident when the Al Kitab as the Word of God is freely shared and this can only impress both ill-informed doubters and curious researchers.
We do well to remind ourselves, that in principle Christians should do all that is necessary to be righteous and peaceable with the government, try their best to obey the Law (to the extent that it is just) and that includes even some ridiculous laws and government policies (to the extent that this does not lead to injustice towards others), BUT when it comes to upholding the Gospel through God’s Word (represented by the Al Kitab) we will obey God rather than man/human authorities.
More than 15,000 Bibles in Bahasa Indonesia have been detained by the government this past year.
Herald Malaysia Online LINK
Kuala Lumpur: On Sept 11, Gideons International consignment of 5,000 Indonesia Testaments (Vest) and 5,000 Indonesia/English Bilingual Testaments that Alpha Publisher sent from Jakarta to Kuching were detained by the Malaysian Home Affairs Ministry (Publication).
While in March this year, 5,100 Bibles in Bahasa Indonesia ordered by the Bible Society of Malaysia were also detained by the same ministry.
The reason given for the detention of the Scriptures was because they contain the banned words of Allah, Kaabah, Baitumal and Solat.
“The Borneo Evangelical Church (S.I.B) had written an appeal letter dated Sept 17 to the Home Affairs Ministry in Putrajaya for the release of this consignment. We are now waiting for the answer of the appeal,” said Low Boon Leong, National Field Officer of The Gideons International.
“Even now as the books are detained, we have to pay for the warehouse charges which cost a fair sum of money,” he added. “In the event that we are unsuccessful in this appeal, we will have to send this consignment back to Alpha Publisher in Jakarta,” Low explained.
Rev Wong from the Bible Society of Malaysia said that besides asking the people to pray, the society has written an appeal letter which will be hand delivered to the Prime Minister by representatives of the Christian Council of Malaysia (CCM) and the Christian Federation of Malaysia (CFM).
He added that there was a high demand for Bibles in Bahasa Indonesia and appealed to the ministry to release the Bibles as soon as possible.
The Christian Council of Malaysia is following up on their appeal to the Malaysian Government to release these Scriptures.