Malaysia bulldozes temples
source: Fort Wayne News, April 21, 2007
By Sean Yoong
PUTRAJAYA, Malaysia – The cavernous pink Putra Mosque with its soaring minaret is one of the most commanding sights and popular tourist photo backdrops in the new city of Putrajaya.
A house of worship for thousands of Muslims in the 8-year-old administrative capital of Malaysia, it is a showcase of the nation’s dominant faith – Islam.
But the mosque also highlights the fact that Putrajaya doesn’t have a single church or temple – a fact that minority Buddhists, Hindus and Christians see as one example of the second-class treatment other faiths get in this Muslim-majority country
Religious minorities have long complained about obstacles in getting the government’s permission to build places of worship in Malaysia. But their frustrations have grown amid recent accusations by religious rights activists that authorities are destroying non-Muslim shrines, heating up racial bitterness that has simmered for decades beneath a veneer of multicultural harmony.
“There is much disillusionment” among non-Muslims, said P. Uthayakumar, a Hindu lawyer who has launched a court battle to prevent authorities from demolishing temples. “Every time a temple is demolished, the people’s confidence is shaken further.”
The issue of churches and temples is part of a wider debate in Malaysia regarding racial and religious rights. Majority ethnic Malays, who are exclusively Muslim, enjoy a host of privileges, while other groups struggle with issues such as a perceived lack of recourse when they get into legal disputes with Muslims over religious matters.
“The debate and conflict over places of worship for non-Muslims is one of the results of the radicalized communitarian politics,” says Farish Noor, a Malaysian Muslim political analyst.
“Thus far, the Malaysian government has been talking about being a government for all Malaysians, but sadly we see that the Malay-Muslim agenda still dominates politics at a major level.”
Some observers say the destruction of temples reflects the government’s failure under Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who took power in 2003, to curb attempts by some Malays to assert their influence and privileges.
Abdullah, who espouses a philosophy of progressive moderate Islam, warned in November that he would not allow anyone to “hijack Islam in Malaysia in order to breed intolerance and hatred.”
However, there has been an increasing perception among non-Muslims over the past year that some politicians and religious authorities have become overzealous in trying to ensure that the status of Malays and their religion remains unthreatened.
Malaysia has not seen major racial violence since May 1969, when hundreds were killed in riots between Malay Muslims – two-thirds of the country’s 26 million people – and ethnic Chinese who are 25 percent of the population.
Most Chinese are Buddhists or Christians. Ethnic Indians, the smallest minority, are largely Hindus.
Racial harmony between the three groups is a fine balance, maintained mainly because the minorities have not made a fuss about Islam’s primacy, and are accepting and thankful for the relative freedom they have to practice their faith.
But critics say that although religious freedom is a constitutional right, minorities are being indirectly victimized by laws and arcane rules.
Among them, religious conversion of ethnic Malay Muslims is illegal; authorities have strict guidelines that limit the number of non-Muslim places of worship, partly based on whether there are enough non-Muslims in an area to justify having a church or temple.
According to Town Planning Department guidelines non-Muslim places of worship can be built only after taking into account racial “harmony ... and not touch on the sensitivities of other faiths.”
Laws also allow for the demolition of temples and churches built on sites deemed unsuitable by city officials.
In the past year, activists allege there have been increasing demolitions, especially involving Hindu temples. The Hindu Rights Action Force lobby group claims more than 70 Hindu temples were razed or threatened with such action in 2006.
Many Hindu temples were built by plantation laborers, without official approval, before the country’s independence from Britain in 1957.
The Hindu coalition has urged the government to declare temple locations as religious land reserves, which would protect them. It filed a court application in December seeking an injunction to halt any further demolitions.
Malaysia is one of Southeast Asia’s most placid countries, and there is no immediate alarm that the issue will trigger serious unrest. Nevertheless, some demolitions sparked violent confrontations that could be a sign of simmering tensions.
In November, police fired warning shots to quell a fracas between dozens of protesters and demolition workers who flattened part of a Chinese temple deemed to have been built illegally in northern Penang state.
The main problem for Christians, meanwhile, is getting approval to build new churches; a Roman Catholic church, for instance, was held up 18 years. Many Protestant churches are forced to occupy commercial shop and office premises because they cannot obtain government consent.
The government rejects claims of discrimination, pointing out that the demolished temples were built illegally and that its policies allow for sufficient non-Muslim places of worship.
“Planning rules will definitely take care of all religious needs,” Housing and Local Government Minister Ong Ka Ting, a Chinese, told The Associated Press.
“Under the planning guidelines, all the new development must provide for non-Muslim places of worship. All (authorities) should abide by this and implement this accordingly.”
Such assurances, however, sometimes seem slow to be translated to action. Catholic Malaysians have been working since 2005 to set up a church in Putrajaya, but church officials say they are still awaiting the government’s blessings for the church design.
The Rev. Julian Leow, a priest involved in the project, estimates hundreds of Catholics in Putrajaya, a city of 50,000, currently have to travel to neighboring districts for Mass.
“It would be very significant to have a church in the administrative capital,” Leow said. “It would be a showcase (for religious diversity) that Malaysia can present, not only to Catholics but to the whole world.”