U.S. Department of State Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 1999 - Malaysia

Section I. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and religious minorities generally worship freely, although with some restrictions. Religious minorities include large Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, and Sikh communities. Islam is the official religion; however, the practice of Islamic beliefs other than Sunni Islam was restricted significantly in the first half of 1998. Government funds support an Islamic religious establishment, and it is official policy to "infuse Islamic values" into the administration of the country. The Government imposes Islamic religious law on Muslims only in some civil matters and does not impose Islamic law beyond the Muslim community.

According to government census figures, in 1991 59 percent of the population was Muslim; 18 percent practiced Buddhism; 8 percent Christianity; 6 percent Hinduism; 5 percent Confucianism, Taoism, or other religions that originated in China; 1 percent animism; 0.5 percent other faiths, including Sikhism and the Baha'i Faith. The religious practices of the remainder are not known with certainty.

Adherence to Islam is considered intrinsic to Malay ethnic identity, and therefore Islamic religious laws administered by state authorities through Islamic courts bind all ethnic Malays in some matters. For Muslims, particularly ethnic Malays, the right to leave the Islamic faith and adhere to another religion is a controversial question, and in practice it is very difficult for Muslims to change religions. Persons who wish to do so face severe obstacles.

The issue of Muslim "apostasy" became very controversial in 1998. There were proposals inside and outside of the Government for various punishments for "apostates." In August 1998, the Government stated that apostates would not face government punishment so long as they did not defame Islam after their conversion.

The Government generally respects non-Muslims' right of worship; however, state governments carefully control the building of non-Muslim places of worship and the allocation of land for non-Muslim cemeteries. Approvals for such permits sometimes are granted very slowly. After a violent conflict in Penang between Hindus and Muslims in March 1998, the Government announced a nationwide review of unlicensed Hindu temples and shrines (see Section II). However, implementation does not appear to be vigorous.

Non-Muslims are concentrated in East Malaysia, major urban centers, and other areas.

Proselytizing of Muslims by members of other religions is prohibited strictly, although proselytizing of non-Muslims faces no obstacles. For a long time, the Government has discouraged – and in practical terms forbidden – the circulation in peninsular Malaysia of Malay-language translations of the Bible and distribution of Christian tapes and printed materials in Malay. However, Malay-language Christian materials can be found. Some states have laws that prohibit the use of Malay-language religious terms by Christians, but the authorities do not enforce them actively. The distribution of Malay-language Christian materials faces few restrictions in the east. Visas for foreign Christian clergy are restricted severely.

The Government opposes what it considers deviant interpretations of Islam. In the past, the Government has imposed restrictions on certain Islamic sects, primarily the small number of Shi'a. The Government continues to monitor the activities of the Shi'a. In September 1998, the Government stated that it was monitoring the activities of 55 religious groups believed to be involved in "deviant" Islamic teachings. In May 1999, authorities said that the banned Al-Arqam sect was attempting to reconstitute itself. In 1997 the Government proposed amending the Constitution to make Sunni Islam the country's official branch of Islam. This would make illegal the practice of other forms of Islam. The proposal was no longer being discussed actively by mid-1999.

The Government periodically has detained members of what it considers Islamic "deviant sects" without trial or charge under the Internal Security Act (ISA). After release, such detainees are subject to restrictions on their movement and residence. In November 1997, 10 persons, 2 of whom were over 75 years old, were detained under the ISA for spreading Shi'a teachings. Two of the prisoners later were released on a technicality, but were detained again (also under the ISA) just minutes after they left the courtroom. As of mid-1999, all these persons had been released, and there were no religious detainees or prisoners.

For Muslim children, religious education according to a government-approved curriculum is compulsory. There are no restrictions on home instruction.

As part of its campaign to infuse Muslim values, in September 1998, the military services forbade the sale of alcoholic beverages on all military installations, including sale to non-Muslims.

The Government generally restricts remarks or publications that might incite racial or religious disharmony. This includes some statements and publications critical of particular religions, especially Islam. The Government also restricts the content of sermons at mosques. In 1998 several government leaders warned against those who deliver sermons in mosques for "political ends." Occasionally state governments ban certain Muslim clergymen from delivering sermons at mosques. In February 1999, the state of Selangor lifted a ban on a former mufti (the highest state Muslim leader) of Selangor. Allegedly, he had called the Prime Minister an apostate.

In January 1999, the Selangor state government announced the formation of a government Interreligious Consultative Council that included representatives of all major religions. The Council's stated objectives were to prevent interreligious conflict, to promote interreligious understanding, and to address moral and social problems jointly. Since the January announcement, there have been no further reports of the Council's activities.

The Government has a comprehensive system of preferences for ethnic Malays and members of a few other groups known collectively as "Bumiputras," most of whom are Muslim.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covering by this report.

There were no reports of the forced religious conversion of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States or of the Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section II. Societal Attitudes

The country's various believers generally live amicably. In March 1998, Hindus and Muslims engaged in a violent confrontation with each other in a Penang village over the location of a Hindu temple near a mosque. Police quickly restored order and handled the problem evenhandedly. The Government has since devoted considerable effort to resolving the underlying dispute.

The Government implements a comprehensive system of preferences in housing, education, business, and other areas, in favor of Malays and other Bumiputras.

Ecumenical and interfaith organizations of the non-Muslim religions exist and include the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Sikhism, the Malaysian Council of Churches, and the Christian Federation of Malaysia. None of these organizations are sponsored by the Government. Muslim organizations generally do not participate in ecumenical bodies, but Muslims reportedly took part in the Selangor State Interreligious Consultative Council (see Section I).

Section III. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Embassy discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the overall context of the promotion of human rights issues, which are of the highest priority to the U.S. Government. Embassy representatives have met with some religious leaders.

The Annual Report to Congress on International Religious Freedom describes the status of religious freedom in each foreign country, and government policies violating religious belief and practices of groups, religious denominations and individuals, and U.S. policies to promote religious freedom around the world. It is submitted in compliance with P.L. 105-292 (105th Congress) and is cited as the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.

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