Malaysian Church besieged over conversion rumours

A Catholic Church in Malaysia was besieged by up to 1,000 protesters on Sunday after rumours spread by SMS and email that a group of Muslim converts were to be baptised there.

AsiaNews reports that a first Holy Communion service for 110 Catholic children was under way at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Ipoh, north of Kuala Lumpur, as the protesters mobilised outside the church compound.

Despite the tense situation, the congregation of about 1,000 parishioners continued with the service, after being advised not to leave the church until the protesters had left.

Perak State police chief, Datuk Abdul Aziz Bulat, who was at the scene, advised protesters not to believe rumours, especially those transmitted through SMS.

"Contrary to what the SMS claimed, no such thing took place at the church and I have directed my men to investigate and trace the source of this malicious text message and its sender," he told a media conference.

The protesters dispersed after about two hours, during which riot troops arrived in four trucks and a water cannon truck and formed a barricade between the protesters and the church.

Policemen were stationed in the vicinity to ensure there would be no more such protests.

Archbishop Emeritus of Kuala Lumpur, Anthony Soter Fernandez, later told AsiaNews that "it is not the nature of the Catholic Church to indiscriminately baptise any person. Any adult seeking baptism has to first undergo a long period of examination and faith education."

Archbishop Fernandez, who now lectures at the General Seminary in Penang, said the onus was on any adult who wished to know more about the Catholic faith to sort out all impediments before seeking such instruction.

He reiterated that the Catholic Church in Malaysia had never conducted clandestine baptisms of Muslims.

Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak said police were investigating the hoax, which he described as "dangerous as it can lead to racial disputes and create a tense situation in the country," the national news agency Bernama reported.

"Firm action must be taken against those responsible," Najib was quoted as saying by Bernama. "We must find out who was behind it."

The controversial SMS and e-mail had said that "several Malays will be baptised by Datuk Azhar Mansor", who was also described as a Muslim apostate now living in Australia, Sun2Surf said.

However, Azhar's elder brother, Azham, denied the rumours, describing the SMS and e-mail as "pure lies".

"The SMS was not true," he said, adding that Azhar was running a business in Langkawi.

Police to investigate apostasy allegation

But other reports indicate that local authorities will investigate the claims against Azhar.

"Apostasy is included in the law of every state and the state government will ensure that it is investigated thoroughly," a Perlis state government official said.

A local mufti in the state of Perak, Datuk Seri Harussani Haji Zakaria had earlier claimed in February that 250,000 Muslims, of which 100,000 were Malays, had apostatised themselves, while 100,000 more had submitted applications to do so, reports say.

A Malaysian women's group, Sisters in Islam, spokesperson, Zaitun Kasim, said that Islamic party PAS deputy president Nasharuddin Mat Isa had made unsubstantiated claims last November that there was a "concerted plot to convert Malays" to Hinduism.

"One can only conclude that these inflammatory statements are designed to breed contempt against certain sectors of the community," Ms Zaitun said in a press statement.

"Islam, as with other religions, does not in any way condone any form of violence. We are therefore gravely disappointed that the actions of some Muslims have not only brought the religion into disrepute but have caused harm to other Malaysians," she said.

"Further we urge the authorities to take measures to halt this trend before it becomes the undoing of a nation that has strived to provide a space for all Malaysians," Zaitun said, citing other events that have been damaging to race relations such as:

"We are sorry that the intimidating actions of a small, ill-informed group of Muslims have caused fear and anxiety amongst fellow Malaysians," Zaitun said.

Malaysia's population of 26 million people is about 60 percent Malay Muslim, 25 percent Chinese Buddhists and Christians, and 10 percent Indians, who are mainly Hindus and Christians.

Church besieged after false rumours about Muslim baptisms (Asia News, 6/11/06)
Malaysian government vows action against pranksters in religious conversion scare (International Herald Tribune (6/11/06)
Najib: Nail SMS culprits (Sun2Surf, 6/11/06)

LINKS (not necessarily endorsed by Church Resources)
Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Silibin (Diocese of Penang)

No joy for Malaysian Muslim convert to Catholicism (CathNews, 25/8/06)

7 Nov 2006