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Being Christians in a Muslim-majority country - Interview with Hermen Shastri

26 July 2004

By Juan Michel (*)

A digest of stories from Faith and Order meeting in Kuala Lumpur will be distributed daily.

Rev. Dr Hermen Shastri, the general secretary of the Council of Churches of Malaysia (CCM), a fifty-seven year old ecumenical body which is hosting the upcoming meeting of the WCC Faith and Order plenary commission to take place in Kuala Lumpur, from 28 July to 6 August, 2004, speaks in this interview about the life and witness of churches in a minority situation, where the meanings of evangelization, inter-faith dialogue, ecumenism and politics are different.

-- Christians in Malaysia make up 7% of the population. What are the implications for churches in such a minority situation? How do the Malaysian churches understand their role in society?

As a minority, we are acutely aware that we live among people of other faiths. This is a daily reality which implies that, in building a just and harmonious nation, our lives are intertwined in a common destiny.

As churches we seek to contribute meaningfully to the well-being of the nation. More concretely, we see our role as upholding the secular democratic status of our federal constitution, protecting religious freedom as guaranteed by it, and engaging in open and frank dialogue with government, inter-faith and civil groups, on matters of common concern.

-- What are the main challenges faced by the Malaysian churches?

A specific challenge, in the face of resurgent Islam, is to work with others to ensure that Malaysia is not turned into an "Islamic" or "theocratic" state. A related challenge is to monitor situations where civil and religious liberties could be curtailed.

Other challenges we face are familiar to churches everywhere, like engaging in issues related to rights of children, women, disabled and migrant workers, or to promote sustainable development in order to protect the environment. To bridge the Catholic - Ecumenical - Evangelical divide among the churches is also part of our agenda.

-- How are relations between Christians and other Malaysian faith communities?

There are good relationships with the Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh communities. Twenty years of journeying together at the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Sikhism has helped to build trust and a good cooperative spirit.

Regarding relationships with the Muslim community, experiences vary. Some Muslim groups, usually the moderate voices within that community, are open to dialogue. But other groups avoid dialogue because they perceive it as confrontational and perhaps as impinging on aspects of their faith and practice on which, they believe, non-Muslims have no right to comment.

Having said that, government-based Islamic institutions are nevertheless ready to engage in dialogue to resolve "sensitive" issues.

-- What kind of society will Faith and Order commissioners find in Kuala Lumpur? Is there harmony or fragility in inter-ethnic relations? Celebration of racial differences or racial bitterness? Is religion the great divide among Malaysians and not ethnicity, as some say?

Basically, they will find a mixed society of different ethnic communities (Malays, Chinese, Indians, indigenous peoples) and religious backgrounds (Islam, Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Christianity, Sikhism) living peacefully together. That would be the general impression.

Ethnic and religious differences are an accepted reality; difficult socio-economic and religious issues arising from ethnically-based politics are tempered with sensitivity and goodwill. Every Malaysian is aware that the stability of social relations in a multi-ethnic or multi-religious context is a fragile one.

Thus far, Malaysian society has been able to tread a moderate path and celebrate its diversity on the basis of understanding, compromise and shared responsibility.

-- Islam being the religion of about 54% of the population and also the official religion of the country, what is the impact of Islamic laws and regulations - those which discourage or even punish conversion out of Islam, for instance - on the daily lives of Malaysian Christians?

Islamic-based laws and regulations impact the lives of the other religious communities through restrictions, perceived or real, in social life.

One current issue is that of conversion out of Islam, which under strict Syariah laws is considered "apostasy". Inter-faith (non-Islamic) concerns about this are raised at all dialogue sessions with government authorities or Islamic groups.

It is unlikely the Muslim stance on such a "sensitive" issue will soften; however there are small signs of accommodation when it comes to inter-faith marriages or custody of children when one parent converts to Islam.

We have chosen non-confrontational dialogue. Sensitivity on this issue is underscored by patience and understanding of the forces of conservatism and moderation within the Islamic fold.

-- What does evangelization mean in that context?

In Malaysia, it is against the law for any religion to proselytize among Muslims. This has a direct bearing on the Christian idea of evangelization. Most pronouncements of national Christian bodies, be they Catholic, Protestant or Evangelical, stress the need to tread carefully on the issue. It may be perceived by outsiders as an unacceptable compromise, but Malaysian Christians feel that a confrontational approach would lead nowhere.

Therefore, Malaysian Christians speak of "life and word evangelization". People should see the exemplary lives of Christians and that should offer opportunities to share the spiritual basis of such living with others.

-- Have the latest geopolitical events had any noticeable consequences for the life and witness of Malaysian churches and individual Christians?

Yes, definitely! Muslims perceive that Islam is "under siege" by the Western media, which portrays it as a source of conflict wherever it is present. But this is not true. In Malaysia, the government takes a firm position vis-à-vis sectarian Muslim groups that manifest extremist religious positions. Religious justification of terrorism is not tolerated.

Of course, Malaysian churches come under scrutiny by Muslims if they take a stance that is perceived as "Western"; for example, articulating secular-based notions of democracy which are unacceptable in our socio-cultural context.

But on other issues - like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, on which the Council of Churches supports a just settlement based on a two sovereign states model and joins the Muslim community in speaking out against the atrocities suffered by Palestinians - Malaysian Churches are not seen as blindly reflecting an American stance.

-- A Christian journalist wrote recently, "even as we express some of our frustrations, (Malaysian) Christians must also acknowledge the liberties we enjoy in this wonderful country of ours". What are some of those frustrations?

The basic frustration is that invariably Islam comes into the picture on many of the issues the churches struggle with. They walk a fine line between maintaining a strong position on constitutionally guaranteed religious freedom, and patiently making allowances due to "sensitivities".

Another frustration is having to contend with the proliferation of independent churches, and how this phenomenon is perceived by other faith communities. Christianity is indeed growing in the country. But so are churches of every shade of doctrine. Does religious freedom mean that the multiplication of churches of every sort is to be tolerated?

-- The fact that the country's prime minister will address the Faith and Order gathering seems to be a recognition of the relevant role of Malaysian churches in society. How are relations between the Malaysian churches and the federal government?

They are good! The strongest dialogue partner on all matters affecting the life of the churches has been the government. The reason is that it is based on a coalition of political parties dedicated to the principle of sharing the benefits of progress with all ethnic and religious communities in the country.

Church leaders relate closely to Christian politicians in government, in order to influence government decisions. Sometimes, this gives the churches direct access to the prime minister, and through his intervention many issues are resolved.

Experience shows that government agencies are prepared to engage in serious dialogue with religious communities to resolve issues facing non-Muslims in the country, although finding solutions is not always easy.

-- But at the same time in a recent issue of the CCM publication "Berita" (News) the "increasing government policy of Islamization of society" is mentioned as a "worrying" trend.

And so it is! The government, with a majority Muslim leadership, has to constantly reassure its Muslim constituencies that it is Islamic. "Islamization" in its various interpretations is openly espoused by the government. This worries us. The constitution does not endorse an Islamic state, and therefore this notion is challenged by the non-Muslim communities, which are unreservedly united in this regard.

-- What is your assessment of the current Malaysian ecumenical scene? How are relations among Christian churches themselves?

At the institutional level, churches tend to be connected ecumenically. There are organizations that encourage churches to work together, like our Council of Churches; those belonging to the "Evangelical" stream have the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship. These two bodies joined in 1985 with the National Catholic Bishops’ Conference to create the Christian Federation of Malaysia, a consultative body aimed at safeguarding Christian interests in the face of Islamization.

Ecumenism is evident also through the various specific issue groups operating within or outside the churches. The Children's Rights Network is a good example of this. There are also a number of advocacy Christian groups that work closely with NGOs.

However, for many local churches the term "ecumenism" is not popular. They associate it with "liberalism" as opposed to the "evangelicalism" they promote. They speak of "unity of the spirit" rather than of "unity of the body" which may imply working for the organic unity of the churches.

Local churches tend to cooperate more around "evangelical" causes rather than on issues of church unity. In fact, the one single ecclesiological issue that confronts churches in the country is the mushrooming of the independent churches. These operate on their own and pursue an agenda that militates against the general notions of ecumenism.

-- Is there any similarity between the struggle for unity of different Christian confessions and the need for Malaysians of different ethnic origins to cross ethnic boundaries and unite under one common national identity?

I feel there is definitely a link between unity and national identity. Unity is shallow if it means "tolerating" one another. There must be a common search for the deeper dimension of what makes us one as a people. At what point do we cross ethnic boundaries and embrace a common national identity? This issue has been much debated in our country in the last twenty years. Likewise, churches must also be challenged to cross confessional boundaries and seek to nurture a unity that goes to the heart of the Gospel.

-- What are the Malaysian churches' expectations of the Faith and Order meeting?

Except for church leaders, people in the pew have never heard of Faith and Order, although when they are told that such a body seeks to overcome doctrinal differences that cause church divisions, they find it interesting.

We hope this meeting will bring a new impetus to Malaysian churches to pursue the ecumenical agenda. And furthermore, the churches here must be challenged to accept that "ecumenical formation" is not an additional but an integral part of discipleship in our modern world.

(*) Juan Michel is WCC media relations officer.

Additional information on Faith and Order and the Kuala Lumpur meeting, including a detailed agenda and a form for media accreditation, is available on the meeting website at

www.wcc-coe.org/kualalumpur2004.html

Media coverage: An ecumenical media team will provide daily feature and news stories in English, German, Spanish and French, as well as photos. All material can be viewed and downloaded free of charge from the meeting website.

Kuala Lumpur features: Although written according to the usual journalistic standards of accuracy and balance, since this article is intended for the general public it should not be read as a formal academic or theological text, nor should it be considered an official statement of the Faith and Order commission.

Opinions expressed in WCC Features do not necessarily reflect WCC policy. This material may be reprinted freely, providing credit is given to the author.