U.S. Department of State Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 2006 - Malaysia

International Religious Freedom Report 2006

Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, September 15, 2006. Covers the period from July 1, 2005, to June 30, 2006.

The constitution provides for freedom of religion; however, the Government places some restrictions on this right. Islam is recognized in the constitution as "the religion of the Federation," but the practice of non-Sunni Islamic beliefs was significantly restricted, and those deviating from accepted Sunni beliefs could be subjected to "rehabilitation." Non-Muslims were free to practice their religious beliefs with few restrictions.

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

The generally tolerant relationship among religious groups in society contributed to religious freedom.

The U.S. government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has an area of approximately 127 thousand square miles, and its population was estimated at 25.6 million. According to 2000 census figures, approximately 60 percent of the population practiced Islam; 19 percent Buddhism; 9 percent Christianity; 6 percent Hinduism; and 3 percent Confucianism, Taoism, and other traditional Chinese religions. The remainder was accounted for by other faiths, including animism, Sikhism, and the Baha'i Faith. Ethnic Malays, accounting for approximately 55 percent of the population, are legally classified as Muslims at birth.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, but it also recognizes Islam as the country's religion. In practice the Government significantly restricts the observance of Islamic beliefs other than Sunni Islam. The Government provides financial support to an Islamic religious establishment composed of a variety of governmental, quasi-governmental, and other institutions, and it indirectly provides more limited funds to non-Islamic communities. State governments impose Islamic religious law on Muslims in some cultural and social matters but generally do not interfere with the religious practices of non-Muslim communities. Prime Minister Abdullah is a proponent of moderate, progressive "Islam Hadhari" (literally "civilizational Islam"). Some observers believe support for this policy contributed to his 2004 election victory over the opposition Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS), which advocated a stricter Islamic agenda.

Several holy days are recognized as official holidays, including Hari Raya Puasa (Muslim), Hari Raya Qurban (Muslim), the Birth of the Prophet Muhammad (Muslim), Wesak Day (Buddhist), Deepavali (Hindu), Christmas (Christian), and, in East Malaysia, Good Friday (Christian).

The Registrar of Societies, under the Ministry of Home Affairs, determines whether a religious organization may be registered and thereby qualify for government grants and other benefits. Various religious groups were not recognized as such by the Government, and they sometimes registered themselves under the Companies Act to operate legally. In June 2005 nine Falun Gong practitioners were fined for committing technical violations of the Companies Act, such as failure to provide minutes of the organization's meetings within the required time frame.

Public schools generally offered Islamic religious instruction, which is compulsory for Muslim children. Non-Muslim students are required to take nonreligious morals/ethics courses. Private schools are free to offer a non-Islamic religious curriculum as an option for non-Muslims. There are no restrictions on home instruction. The Government offered grants only to privately run Muslim religious schools that agreed to allow government supervision and adopted a government-approved curriculum.

In February 2005 the Malaysian Bar Council organized a forum to discuss the creation of an interfaith commission aimed at promoting better understanding and mutual respect among the country's religious groups. Several groups claiming to represent mainstream Islam refused to participate in the forum on the grounds that an interfaith commission would "weaken Islam." The Government subsequently announced that an interfaith commission was not necessary but stated that interfaith dialogue should be encouraged.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

In practice Muslims are not permitted to convert to another religion. In several recent rulings secular courts ceded jurisdiction to Shari'a courts in matters involving conversion to or from Islam. In July 2004 the Federal Court, 'the country's highest court, upheld a 2002 lower court ruling that only the Shari'a courts were qualified to determine whether a Muslim has become an apostate. In September 2005 'the country's second-highest court, the Court of Appeal, denied the request of a Muslim who had converted to Christianity to change the religion designated on her national identity card. The Court of Appeal ruled that a Shari'a court must first approve a request by a Muslim citizen to convert to another religion. In practice Shari'a courts routinely denied such requests. Citing the case as "a matter of general public interest," the Federal Court agreed in April 2006 to hear the woman's appeal and address the degree to which Shari'a courts have jurisdiction over determinations of Muslim apostasy.

In December 2005 a trial court ruled that it lacked jurisdiction over Shari'a court decisions on matters that concerned Islamic family law. The case involved the disposition of the remains of a Hindu man who was alleged to have converted to Islam before his death. The man's Hindu wife, claiming that there was no clear evidence that he had converted to Islam, struggled with Islamic authorities over which religion's rites should govern his burial. A Shari'a court ruled that the Hindu man was a Muslim and ordered his burial according to Muslim rites. As a non-Muslim, the wife took her case to the secular High Court, but the court ruled that it had no jurisdiction to hear the case because it involved a Muslim. She then filed an appeal, which was pending as of June 30, 2006. In January 2006, following the death of an eighty-nine-year-old ethnic Malay woman who had practiced Buddhism her entire adult life, Islamic religious authorities requested a Shari'a court to rule whether the woman's Buddhist family could be allowed to bury her according to Buddhist rites. The Shari'a court ruled in favor of the woman's family.

In January 2006 the non-Muslim members of the cabinet presented a memorandum to the prime minister calling for a review of constitutional provisions affecting the legal rights of non-Muslims. Following protests from several Muslim leaders within the governing coalition and a commitment by the prime minister to address the non-Muslim ministers' concerns in future cabinet meetings, the ministers withdrew their memorandum. The prime minister stated publicly that 'the country's constitution provides sufficient protection of religious freedom and should therefore not be reviewed or amended in that regard.

Control of mosques is exercised at the state level rather than by the federal government; state religious authorities appoint imams to mosques and provide guidance on the content of sermons. While practices vary from state to state, both the Government and the opposition PAS have attempted to use mosques in the states they control to deliver politically oriented messages. In recent years, several states controlled by the governing coalition announced measures including banning opposition-affiliated imams from speaking at mosques, more vigorously enforcing existing restrictions on the content of sermons, replacing mosque leaders and governing committees thought to be sympathetic to the opposition, and threatening to close down unauthorized mosques with ties to the opposition. Similarly the state government of Kelantan, controlled by the PAS, reportedly restricts imams affiliated with the Barisan Nasional (the ruling coalition) from speaking in mosques.

The Government opposed what it considered "deviant" interpretations of Islam, maintaining that allegedly deviant groups' views endanger national security. According to the Government's Islamic Development Department's (IDD) website, fifty-six deviant teachings had been identified and prohibited to Muslims as of June 2006. They included Shi'a, transcendental meditation, and Baha'i teachings, among others. The Government asserted that "deviationist" teachings could cause divisions among Muslims. The IDD has established written guidelines concerning what constitutes "deviationist" behavior or belief. State religious authorities, in making their determinations on these matters, have generally followed the federal guidelines. Members of groups deemed "deviationist" may be arrested and detained, with the consent of a Shari'a court, in order to be "rehabilitated" and returned to the "true path of Islam." In June 2005 the religious affairs minister told parliament that 22 "deviant" religious groups with an estimated 2,820 followers had been identified in the country. Neither the Government nor religious authorities provided data on the number of such persons who have been subjected to "rehabilitation."

The Government continued to monitor the activities of the Shi'a minority.

Proselytizing of Muslims by members of other religions is strictly prohibited, although proselytizing of non-Muslims faces no similar obstacles. In April 2005 two foreign Christian missionaries were arrested after distributing religious materials in front of a mosque. They were charged with "disturbing the peace in a religious manner." After ten days the Government dismissed the charges against the two men and released them.

The Government restricts the distribution in peninsular Malaysia of Malay-language translations of the Bible, Christian tapes, and other printed materials. In April 2005 the prime minister declared that copies of the Malay-language Bible must have the words "Not for Muslims" printed on the front and could be distributed only in churches and Christian bookshops. The distribution of Malay-language Christian materials faces few restrictions in East Malaysia.

According to the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, and Sikhs (MCCBCHS), the Government restricted visas for foreign clergy under the age of forty to inhibit "militant clergy" from entering the country. While representatives of non-Muslim groups did not sit on the immigration committee that approved visa requests, the MCCBCHS was asked for its recommendations. In August 2005 the Selangor state religious authorities announced their decision to withhold support for visa applications by foreign Muslim imams and religious teachers. Local media reported that the decision was largely targeted at the ethnic Indian Muslim community, in an effort to increase the number of "homegrown" imams. Ethnic Indian religious leaders expressed concern that some mosques and religious schools might need to be closed.

The Government prohibits publications that it alleges might incite racial or religious disharmony. In 2004 it prohibited Muslims from viewing the movie "The Passion of the Christ" but allowed non-Muslims to view the film at private screenings.

The Government continued to require all Muslim civil servants to attend government-approved religion classes.

State governments have authority over the building of non-Muslim places of worship and the allocation of land for non-Muslim cemeteries. Approvals for building permits sometimes were granted very slowly. Some religious groups complained that state policies and local decisions restrict the construction of non-Muslim places of worship. Muslim residents of a neighborhood in Kajang objected to the building of a church in a residential area that was predominantly Muslim. In May 2005 the local municipal council determined that the proposed site was designated for residential building and rejected the church's application. A Roman Catholic church delayed for more than fourteen years by the state government of Selangor was officially opened in September 2005. Church officials publicly accused state and local officials of intentionally delaying construction of the church by demanding relocation of proposed building sites and revoking previously approved building plans and designs.

Unregistered religious statues and houses of worship may be demolished by the state. Several nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) complained about the demolition of unregistered Hindu temples and shrines located on state and local lands. These structures were often constructed on privately owned plantations prior to the country's' independence in 1957. Around that time,' plantation lands containing many Hindu shrines and temples were transferred to government ownership. In March 2006 state officials in Negeri Sembilan announced their intention to demolish an unregistered Hindu temple believed to be 150 years old. The temple sits on state-owned land that was zoned for road construction in 1956. Approximately 300 worshippers regularly use the temple. In May 2006 the temple sought a court injunction against the pending demolition. The court case remained open as of June 30, 2006.

In family and religious matters, all Muslims are subject to Shari'a law. Some women's rights advocates asserted that women faced discriminatory treatment in Shari'a courts due to prejudicial interpretation of Islamic family law and the lack of uniformity in the implementation of such laws among the various states.

Government-controlled bodies exerted pressure upon non-Muslim women to wear headscarves. In November 2005 the minister of higher education stated that non-Muslim women students at the International Islamic University of Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur must wear headscarves when attending lectures and during graduation ceremonies. In March 2006 the leader of the Royal Malaysian Police stated that all female police officers, including non-Muslims, should wear headscarves during public ceremonies.

Since the defeat of the PAS in Terengganu in March 2004 elections, state and local officials in that state have significantly reduced enforcement of dress codes for women. In Kelantan, the PAS also lost ground in 2004 but remained in control of the state legislature by a narrow margin. Many observers interpreted the result as a rejection by voters of the call by the PAS for the establishment of an Islamic state and of the strict form of Islam that it promoted. The PAS-led state government in Kelantan continued its ban on traditional Malay dance theaters, prohibited advertisements depicting women not fully covered by clothing, enforced wearing of headscarves by Muslim women, and imposed fines for violators during the reporting period. However, state authorities reversed several previously enacted Islamic law-related prohibitions. The PAS-led government allowed operation of gender segregated cinemas and concert venues, fashion shows limited to female attendees, and billiard/snooker centers for men only.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

According to the Government, no individuals were detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA) for religious reasons during the period covered by this report.

The Government is concerned that "deviationist" teachings could cause divisions among Muslims. Members of "deviationist" groups can be arrested and detained, with the consent of a Shari'a court, to be "rehabilitated" and returned to the "true path of Islam." In July 2004 the Federal Court dismissed an appeal by four followers of Ayah Pin, leader of a nonviolent religious group in Terengganu known as the Sky Kingdom. The appeal by the four former Muslims sought a statutory declaration that Sky Kingdom followers have the right to practice the religion of their choice. The Federal Court held that their attempt to renounce Islam did not free them from the jurisdiction of the state Shari'a court. In July 2005 seventy Sky Kingdom members were arrested at the sect's main compound in Terengganu. In August 2005 all nonresidential buildings on the compound were destroyed on the instruction of state officials, who asserted that nonfarming structures had been built on property zoned exclusively for agricultural use. The remaining individuals living on the compound were ordered to vacate their residences. No Shari'a law-qualified attorneys initially agreed to defend the Sky Kingdom followers, forcing postponement of their hearings. Ayah Pin and one of his four wives remained at large as of June 30, 2006, and were sought by religious authorities for supporting "deviant" religious practices. One of the seventy arrested Sky Kingdom followers agreed to undergo religious rehabilitation; the cases against the other Ayah Pin followers were pending at the end of the reporting period.

Forced Religious Conversion

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

Section III. Societal Abuses and Discrimination

The generally tolerant relationship among religious groups in society contributed to religious freedom.

Non-Muslim ecumenical and interfaith organizations in the country include the MCCBCHS, the Malaysian Council of Churches, and the Christian Federation of Malaysia. Muslim organizations generally do not participate in ecumenical bodies. In 2005 several Muslim NGOs boycotted and condemned the proposed formation of an interfaith council on the claimed grounds that "matters concerning Islam could only be discussed by Muslims."

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.

Embassy representatives maintained an active dialogue with leaders and representatives of various religious groups, including those not officially recognized by the Government. The embassy coordinated funding for a Fulbright scholar who addressed interfaith issues while in residence as a lecturer at a public university. The embassy sponsored visits by American Islamic scholars; it also funded civil society grants and exchange grants for representatives of NGOs working to promote greater religious tolerance, respect for diversity, and human rights and openness in the country.


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