Recent events in Malaysia have raised controversies over religious freedom and fundamental liberties to new heights.1 The unexpected raid on the Bible Society at the beginning of last year2 once again pushed the Allah/Alkitab (Malay Bible that contains the word Allah) issue to the forefront in Christian-Muslim relations. It also added to the continuing tension between Christians and Muslims since the Court of Appeal’s decision in the Catholic Herald case in October 2013 that use of the word Allah is not integral and essential to the Christian faith.3
Federal Court questions
The decision last year by the Federal Court to not grant leave to the Catholic Church to appeal has left important questions pertaining to freedom of religion unanswered.4 This is unfortunate. However, the Federal Court’s decision clearly means that the decision of the Court of Appeal remains as law.
The Court of Appeal’s decision is not limited to Peninsula Malaysia and applies to both Sabah and Sarawak regardless of the 10 point solution—a policy decision by the Malaysian Cabinet to allow the import and distribution of Malay Bibles freely in Sabah and Sarawak and local printing of Bibles in any language, including the Malay, Indonesian, and indigenous languages, without restriction.
Various groups have expressed their disappointment with these court decisions. Indeed there are several puzzling aspects to the Federal Court’s view that the Home Minister had exercised his discretion rightly under the Printing Presses and Publication Act to prohibit the Herald from using the word Allah in its Bahasa Malaysia publication, thereby affirming the Court of Appeal’s decision.
Following this decision, Christians in the country are now expected to practise their faith in a way that avoids confusing and offending Muslim sensitivities. It has often been said that such a wide-ranging judgment has the effect of relegating other religions and their practices to the private domain away from the reaches of Islam. Only then, can one safely say that sensitivities would not arise.
However, this would imply that religious space for non-Muslim faiths is now reduced and that they should never be prominent in public life in Malaysia. Christians in Malaysia should now be content with practising their religion in the confines of their own church premises and avoid activities that could potentially offend the Muslim community. Is this acceptable for the non-Muslim community in general and the Christian community in particular?
Religion and community
In Malaysia, as in much of Asia, religion has a dominant role in community and nation building. Religion in Malaysia makes a positive contribution in that it informs morality and provides judgments that are essential to law and policy. The issue is not whether religion should play a role in policy making or legal considerations.
Rather, the contention is that every religion should have its say about the common good in society, recognising that Malaysia is a plural and multi-religious society. Hence, to assert that Islam is the religion of the Federation and that all other religions should be practised in harmony with the sensitivities of Islam is contrary to the spirit of our constitution as well as our national polity.
Privileges versus rights
However, the Court of Appeal decision also presents another formidable challenge for the church in Malaysia. In addition to saying that the use of the word Allah is a practice that is not essential and integral to Christianity, it went on to state that such religious practices are not a fundamental right but a privilege. This implies that only religious practices that are an essential and integral part of the religion are protected and guaranteed under the constitution. What is not essential and integral is not protected and guaranteed, but is merely a privilege. Such a position has support in case law on Muslim practices to the effect that the government is entitled to forbid non-essential and optional religious traditions in the public interest.5
Freedom of religion
For any religious group to live freely and have a vibrant witness for the good of communities and the public life of the nation, freedom of religion must necessarily extend to all faiths and protect the practices of all religions, including those which are peripheral and secondary. Anything less is the absence of religious freedom, or complete religious freedom, and will restrict or constrict religious space, ultimately leading to greater social tension and hostility rather than greater liberty or democratic space.
Our Christian scripture is unequivocal that man was created in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27). As persons created in the image of God, we are persons of dignity. As persons of dignity, we who have been created in his image also have freedom to choose and to act freely. This freedom to choose and to act must always be in relation to God as a response to God so that we may truly enjoy the universal goods and rights recognised by our Christian political tradition.6
Promoting religious freedom
Freedom of religion, including practising one’s religion freely, is therefore a fundamental human liberty that is divinely mandated and cannot be construed as a privilege given by another religious group or by the governing authorities. Such a truth is foundational and the Christian must uphold this truth all the time. It is also imperative for the church to harness this biblical truth to inspire and nurture engagement in the maintenance, promotion, and advocacy of greater religious freedom for all.
In promoting and advocating greater religious freedom, we recognise that we live in a multi-religious society. Hence, not all religious practices may be allowed if they bring harm or danger to another. Religious practices should also not be allowed if they impinge on public morality or disrupt social order so that they affect peaceful co-existence.
It is interesting to note that Professor Andrew Harding, who specialises in South East Asian legal studies and comparative constitutional law, questioned after the Court of Appeal ruling why freedom of religion means freedom to practise religion only in ways that are an essential part of that faith.7 Would not the correct question to ask, according to Professor Harding, be whether there is any consideration that prevents a person from practising their religion in the way they think fit?
This suggests that the State must adopt a minimalist position with respect to freedom of religion, ie it should refrain from interfering with matters of faith and religious practices and confine itself to those matters that endanger lives of others or disrupt public order. The State should let the various religious groups manage their own religions and decide for themselves what is permissible and what is good for the whole.
Such a position is not in the mainstream of Malaysian politics since we have a religion that is historically regulated by the State, and now the State wants to regulate other religions too. However, the defects in that approach have been shown in the recent spate of Allah court cases. Dr Timothy Shah has demonstrated that to allow religions free space to find their own equilibrium in their relationship with other religions and for the common good makes for greater social cohesion.8
Of course, state institutions and state actors will not readily agree to this because it presupposes a level playing field. However, this is what Christians in Malaysia and those advocating complete religious freedom must now work and strive for.
Strengthening the church
In this respect, it is imperative that the church strengthen herself and remain strong at this crossroads for our nation. The quest for a plural society and democratic way of life is an urgent priority in nation building. This requires Christians and all citizens alike to seek a country informed by a very different narrative—a secular polity governed by the rule of law and fundamental democratic principles rather than a religious state run by a religious bureaucracy.
The key is to enhance space for complete religious freedom. However, to do so, the church must be equipped to undertake the task by offering an alternative voice, an ideal in the form of a social vision that is shaped by our Christian faith as to what it means to live as free moral citizens, in peaceful co-existence with one another based on an independent civil society with mutual respect and acceptance alongside a strong democracy and public institutions of justice for the good of all.
Evangelical churches appear in times past to have neglected such an enterprise due to the truncated worldview that it is not within the mission of the church to be engaged on socio-political-religious issues within the public arena. Consequently, priority and focus have often been given to evangelism, church growth, social-community concerns, and cross-cultural missions rather than developing a more holistic and robust social-public theology. This is certainly true for the church in Malaysia, but thankfully current events have served to awaken it to the danger. Its experience might serve as a positive example for churches in other Muslim-majority countries to pursue a strategic engagement for justice and equity in law and policy notwithstanding the difficulties and the prospect of state sanctions.
As the one universal church and the one body of Christ, the global church could certainly offer informed prayers for Christians in Muslim-majority countries to continue faithfully on this quest for a pluralist democracy with the key agenda of religious freedom. Beyond prayers, the global church could share resources and ideas with churches in Muslim-majority countries. Defining the future and destiny of any nation in conformity with the kingdom of God demands collaborative efforts and sustained strategic partnership.9
1Editor’s Note: See article entitled ‘Engaging Resurgent Islam in Malaysia: Challenges and opportunities’ by Ng Kam Weng in the January 2013 issue of Lausanne Global Analysis.
2 See Jennifer Gomez, ‘Selangor Islamic authorities raid Bible Society of Malaysia, 300 copies of Alkitab seized’, The Malaysian Insider, 2 January 2014, accessed 20 October 2014, http://www.themalaysianinsider.com/malaysia/article/selangor-religious-authorities-raid-bible-society-of-malaysia-chairman-held. And also Neville Spylkerman, ‘Jais raids Bible Society of Malaysia’, The Star Online, 2 January 2014, accessed 20 October 2014, http://www.thestar.com.my/News/Nation/2014/01/02/Jais-raid-Bible-Society/.
3 Menteri Dalam Negeri & Ors v Titular Roman Catholic Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur,  MLJU 1060 (Court of Appeal judgment).
4 Titular Roman Catholic Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur vs Menteri Dalam Negara & Ors,  CLJ JT 6. A panel of nine judges heard the application for leave. A majority of five judges refused leave while the remaining four judges dissented.
* Postscript from Author: Following the failure of the Catholic church to obtain leave to appeal, the Catholic church then petitioned to the Federal Court for a review of that decision. The petition for review was filed on the 19 September 2014. See news report at http://www.thestar.com.my/News/Nation/2014/09/19/herald-allah-fed-cout-review-application.
An application for review is not an appeal, but a petition to request the Federal Court to re-look at its own decision. The review for hearing came up on 21 January 2015 wherein a Federal Court consisting of five judges unanimously dismissed the application for review on the grounds that it did not satisfy the conditions or threshold for a review.
5 Hajjah Halimatussaadiah binti Haji Kamaruddin v Public Services Commission Malaysia & Anor,  3 Malayan Law Journal 61.
6 These universal goods consist of the spiritual as well as the physical satisfaction that comes from our stewardship of creation, admiration of the aesthetic beauty of the created earth, the exclusive sexual communion in marriage and procreation, and the rest we have in desisting from our labour in order to render worship to God. See Joan O’Donovan, ‘Freedom, Law and Moral Community in the Christian Political Tradition’ (a paper presented at the KAIROS/INFERMIT Consultation on Democracy and Constitutionalism in the 21st Century, March 2006), 4.
7 Andrew Harding, Language, Religion and the Law: A Brief Comment on the Court of Appeal’s Judgment in the Case of the Titular Roman Catholic Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur, accessed 20 October 2014, http://www.loyarburok.com/2014/02/27/language-religion-law/.
8 Timothy Samuel Shah, Religious Freedom [Why Now?] Defending an Embattled Human Right (Princeton, NJ: Witherspoon Institute, 2012). Also Editor’s Note: See article entitled ‘Persecution of Christians in the World Today: Current trends and their implications for the global church’ by Charles Tieszen in the September 2013 issue of Lausanne Global Analysis.