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Christians in Sandokan's land

05 August 2004

By Juan Michel

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They represent nearly all confessional families but together do not constitute 10 percent of the population. They are thankful for the freedom of religion they enjoy in this majority-Muslim nation but they have to buy tickets to see The Passion of the Christ in the churches. They are allowed to worship freely but if they marry a Muslim they must adopt that religion. They descend from immigrants but are committed to the construction of national unity. They are Malaysian Christians.

"We have religious freedom in everything, with the exception of one thing," said our host as we drove to the church we are going to visit this Sunday morning in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. "We are only barred from proselytizing among Muslims," he said. This does not seem too serious as the Muslim community makes up slightly less than 60 percent of the population, which, while it makes it a clear majority, means that restriction does not apply to 30 percent of the population. Over the course of the day, however, we will find some surprises.

The visit is part of the World Council of Churches (WCC) Faith and Order plenary commission meeting that is being held in the Malaysian capital from July 28 to August 6. With some 120 members representing virtually all Christian families, including 12 commissioners appointed by the Roman Catholic Church, the commission is widely considered the world's most representative theological forum for Christian unity.

Caught up in long and sometimes complicated debates about how and when churches mutually recognize each other's Baptism and their different understandings about the fundamental nature and mission of the church, the members of the commission are thankful for the chance to visit local churches in order to "touch base" in the middle of a 10-days-long meeting.

Receive one another

While others visit Lutheran, Orthodox, Baptist, Anglican, Methodist and Presbyterian churches, our small group is visiting the Mar Thoma Syrian Church in Banting, a middle class neigbourhood. According to the tradition, the church was founded in Kerala, India by St. Thomas the Apostle in the year 58 AD. The origin of the church in Malaysia dates back to the arrival of the "Marthomite" immigrants at the beginning of the 20th Century. The church was constituted around 1911, although in 1930 its members numbered no more than 70 nationwide in the country then known as Malaya.

The community that we are visiting, founded in 1936, was "the first congregation of this church outside of Kerala", said our host with pride. No longer used, the original, ancient building is a small, simple construction that gives testimony to its humble origins. The new, bigger church, more suited to the current size of the congregation made up of some 300 families, is, however, as simple as its predecessor. The interior is marked by Calvinist austerity, with no images or adornments. The only visible symbol within the church is the cross.

The service is held in Malayalam, a language spoken by grandparents and parents that children no longer use, although some still understand it. That is why, people explained, there are few young people here this morning. "Soon we will become an English speaking community," said our host, adding that "language should never be a barrier, but worship is deeply interwoven with culture…"

The Calvinist appearance continues as the worship service begins with songs and Bible readings, but soon an Orthodox backdrop is revealed when the curtain in front of the altar is opened and the aroma of incense fills the temple. The priest, dressed in a simple white habit covered with a splendid ruby red and mother-of-pearl cape, conducts most of the liturgy, which is almost entirely sung, with his face to the altar and his back to the congregation. Both the priest and the congregation cross themselves several times during the service.

The church comes from an Eastern Orthodox tradition, they explain, but in the 17th Century, the Portuguese conquered Kerala and the church was incorporated into the Roman Catholic Church. Later, when the Portuguese were expelled by the Dutch, the church broke with Rome and at the beginning of the 18th Century it went through a reform process under the influence of Anglican missionaries. Today it is an independent reformed church of Eastern Orthodox background that preserves the liturgy of Saint James.

-Holy art thou, O God.

-Holy art thou, Almighty Lord.

-Holy art thou, Immortal Lord.

-O thou that was crucified for us, have mercy upon us,

sing both the congregation and the priest. At a certain time point, those who are celebrating their birthday or who have a special reason to give thanks move to the front and the community prays for them while the priest lays hands upon them. The majority of women have taken off their shoes, as have some of the men. Men and women sit separately and the women's side is without a doubt much more colorful as nearly all are dressed in marvelous saris.

The sermon, preached by a member of the visiting group, speaks about the urgency of mission: "The mission of Christ is the mission of the church and you are the church of Christ in Kuala Lumpur." A mission that should be carried out "in Christ's manner, serving the needy, building peace."

-O Lord, we humbly knock at your door,

-Coming to your house, we pray for your blessing.

-Sanctify your servants by your truth.

The entire liturgy is oriented toward the culminating moment of the Eucharist. "Our communion is open to all Christians who have been baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, who are old enough and who have confessed their sins," explained the priest. And the small group of visitors immediately think of the theme of the event that brought them to Kuala Lumpur: "Receive one another, as Christ has received you, for the glory of God" (Romans 15:7).

Ethnic and religious crucible

After the service, the hospitality extends to the table of one of the families from the faith community. The dishes that are served are an exquisite sample of Indian cooking. Following the custom of the owners of the home, we eat the food with our hands.

As we sit down to eat, a call to prayer sung by a Muezzin at a nearby mosque rings out. What does it mean to be a Christian in a Muslim country? The freedom they enjoy is an enormous blessing, they explain.

And, as we talk, we discover that the priest who accompanies us to lunch is married with two children, seven and ten years old. Are we stealing him away from his family at mid-day? No, his family is in Kerala and visits him two or three times a year. A legal regulation forbides foreign missionaries to bring their families. "It is awkward," said the son of the house who is visiting his parents' home. He just graduated as a lawyer in London and plans to do post-graduate studies there and eventually to get a job.

We also talked about the film The Passion of the Christ. The Malaysian Film Censorship Board restricted the film to Christian audiences, who must buy their tickets in churches linked to the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship. The restriction does not please the Malaysian Christians.

Among those who have voiced their discontent is the Council of Churches of Malaysia general secretary Rev. Dr. Hermen Shastri, who told the opening press conference at the WCC Faith and Order plenary commission that he disapproves of the restriction. If the film is considered inappropriate for Muslims there is no reason for them to stop members of other religions from seeing it such as Hindus or Buddhists, he said.

Later, the government explained that the permit was requested "only for Christians" and that the Board limited itself to authorizing what had been requested. Apparently, it was a case of self-censorship on the part of the film distributor who, assuming the request would be denied, did not both to ask permission for commercial viewing.

This episode reflects the situation of Malaysian Christians who frequently give thanks for the freedom they have to profess their faith and only occasionally dare to express their frustrations, for example at the fact that, according to Shastri, Islam invariably comes into the picture on many of the issues the churches struggle with.

However, this is not surprising in a country where the National Fatwa Council recently barred Muslims from taking part in prize-winning competitions via short messaging services or SMS (arguing that it is a form of gambling), immediately leading several television channels to suspend their competitions. Or, where a person who marries a Muslim must adopt the Islamic religion.

The episode also reflects the complexity of inter-ethnic relationships, in a country where 25 percent of the population is of Chinese origin, 10 percent of Indian origin and the members of these communities carry their ethnic origin stamped on their passport, even if they are Malaysian. This makes a difference when it comes to obtaining a government job or a place at a university, as under a "positive discrimination" policy that began in 1971, there are quotas assigned to citizens of Malaysian origin, who constitute nearly half the population.

"I don't want to claim that there are no problems among the different ethnic and religious communities in Malaysia (nor deny) that there are latent tensions and frustrations," said Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Bin Haji Ahmad Badawi, when he spoke at a Faith and Order plenary commission session, during a brief visit that made national headlines. However, the head of the government insisted on the uniqueness of the country regarding its multiculturalism and diversity, something he said was an example for the world.

The discourse that emphasizes the inter-ethnic and inter-religious harmony is omnipresent in Malaysia. Politicians, religious leaders, newspapers repeat it every day. After a short time in the country, visitors cannot help asking "Why is there so much insistence?" According to an editor at one of the English-speaking dailies it is because the alternative is so frightening. "We have examples in other countries of what could happen if this harmony did not exist and no one wants to put it at risk."

This explains the importance of the role of guaranteeing peaceful coexistence that the Prime Minister has assigned himself. "It is my duty to spread the message of tolerance among all, especially to the Muslim majority," he told members of the Faith and Order plenary commission.

The other side to this coin is much harsher and affects, among others, radical Muslim groups. "We cannot allow our religions to be torn apart by extremist impulses and exclusivist doctrines," nor allow them "to be hijacked by those who promote hatred and violence," affirmed the Prime Minister. About 100 inmates, most of them suspected of involvement with radical Islamic activities, are being held under the Internal Security Act. Passed during the 60s to contain the Communist insurgency, it allows people to be held for undetermined periods without a trial, something that has been criticized by human rights organizations and by the Council of Churches of Malaysia.

A different source of social tension is migrant workers, the majority of whom come from Indonesia, the Philippines and India. According to local press, in this country of close to 25 million residents, there are 2.5 million foreign workers, half of whom are illegal. With 5.1% of residents living below the poverty line and the news reporting daily on violent crimes which would involve foreigners, the government recently announced a plan to deport more than 1 million of them.

Tigers and pirates

Night falls in Kuala Lumpur and the downtown streets teem with activity. In the distance the circular Petronas Towers light up and are magnificent against the night sky. "Our Twin Tower are now the highest building in the world," they say with pride. Malaysia, which is one of the world's leading producers of computer parts, enjoys one of the most booming economies in South East Asia. With more than 7 million tourists arrived so far this year, it is also the leading tourist destination in the region.

Both, economic boom and tourism, are evident as we walk through the streets. All shops are open, and workers encourage passers-by to enter. Near the hotel where the commission is meeting, two trucks usually park covered with huge threatening almost life-sized stuffed tigers. It is impossible not to recall endless childhood afternoons in the company of legendary Sandokan and his ferocious "Malaysian tigers". However, the only pirates we have found so far are illegal DVD copies of the Passion of the Christ, which for months have been available on every corner for just 15 Ringgits (US$ 4).

Juan Michel is the press officer of the World Council of Churches


Christians in Malaysia (Sidebar)

Christians represent 7 per cent of the population of Malaysia. The Roman Catholic Church has the greatest membership (approximately 600,000), followed by the Methodist Church (300,000) then the Anglican Church (170,000). The Mar Thoma Syrian Church has 2,500 members in 16 congregations. Several other Christian communities are also present in the country. The Council of Churches of Malaysia includes 16 denominations, representing nearly 380,000 Christians.


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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.

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