Image：Malaysia National Flag and 14 States Flags
Imagine a situation where Christians are not completely free to evangelize. Yet, they are bombarded by deceptive lures to leave Jesus. The Church becomes not only stagnant in numbers— even worse, it is shrinking by the day. This scenario, which is a reality in some parts of Malaysia, has caused the Southeast Asian country to steadily rise in rank on the Open Doors’ World Watch List for the past few years: From 42 in 2013, to 37 in 2015, before finally landing at 30 in 2016. Driving all this is the government’s steaming engine of Islamization.
With a stroke of a pen 142 years ago, the majority Muslim people group of Malaysia—the Malays—were denied the freedom of receiving the Gospel. This agreement underlies the present clause in the Federal Constitution which makes it unlawful for Christians to share the gospel to Malay Muslims, or even to help Muslim Background Believers (MBBs).
It all started when the Portugese, the first Western powers, came to the Malay Archipelago in 1511, followed by the Dutch in 1641, and finally the British in 1795. During that time, there was concerted effort to reach the majority Malay Muslim population with the gospel, but unfortunately, it came to an abrupt stop with the signing of the Pangkor Agreement.
“In 1874, the Treaty of Pangkor with the Malay rulers paved the way for the British to slowly but surely influenced the Malay states till the whole peninsula [West Malaysia] came under British rule. The Christian religion was sacrificed in favour of mere trade, for the treaty required non-interference in local religion,” writes Pastor ‘M’ in his research papers on Islamization. “It became the hallmark of the British system to maintain a Christian presence solely for the colonial masters.”
Free to Evangelize—But Not to Everyone
Since then, Christians have been free to evangelize, except to the Muslim Malays. (As a result, the latter has been largely—and sadly—ignored by the Church, untouched by the gospel.) The Church resorted instead to evangelize the non-Malay population through its missionary schools. Many Chinese and Indian immigrants send their children to these schools, which are known for their academic excellence, resulting in the birth of vibrant local churches.
However, with the advancement of Islamization, these Christian missionary schools were taken over by the Ministry of Education. These schools were forced to take in Muslim children and teachers, and thus, are forbidden to display crosses or conduct any Christian activities in public. Now, the education centers exist only in name that they were once a Christian school but have lost their Christian character, becoming like any other public schools, where all Muslim students must undergo Islamic religious classes and all students must study Islamic history.
Despite the dimming influence of the schools, the Church continues to reach out to the non-Malay community. But the many believers dare not ‘touch’ the Malays for fear of persecution. “Even in this condition, the church must take responsibility to actively look into the Great Commission in its full context and seek effective strategies from the Lord on how to overcome this challenge for the past century since the Pangkor Agreement,” shares a believer, Matthew (not his real name).
And while the Church was denied her right to fully propagate her faith, Islamic missionary groups have total freedom, huge funds, and support from the government to convert Christians to Islam, especially in the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak.
Image：Putra Mosque in Kuala Lumpur
Converting People through Deceitful Means
The government’s success in taking over Christian missionary schools in Sabah and Sarawak when they joined Malaysia in 1963 was just the beginning. More concerted efforts have been employed to expand the influence of Islam across the two states, where two-thirds of the country’s Christian population reside, and were at one point considered Christian strongholds in this Muslim country.
One primary method to propagate Islam is through intense Islamic dakwah or missionary activities, particularly in Sabah state, the pilot project of Islamization. On the surface, nothing seems wrong. After all, is not Christianity founded on propagation of the faith, too? But a closer look reveals that the dakwah approaches are often deceptive. So dubious is their ethical ground that in an open letter to the government, 47 prominent personalities in Sabah wrote the following:
In Sabah and particularly in the interior, aggressive Islamization activities are being carried out by both covert and overt means to convert especially natives through intimidation, deception, or inducement, particularly targeting remote and poor villagers.
Conversion ceremonies are being carried out under the guise of providing “financial assistance” to poor natives and native school children especially those living in government hostels [boarding homes].
The National Registration Department, despite its denials, is also labelling native Christians with “bin” or “binti” [a Muslim word that precedes the surname] in their names, [and registering them] as Muslims in their identity cards without their knowledge or consent.
The drive to increase the Muslim population of Sabah by the granting of ID cards to illegal Muslim immigrants has been a long standing bone of contention of genuine Sabahans against both the state and Federal Governments.
They further add, “We are not against conversions out of free will, but we condemn conversion activities done through deceit, intimidation and bribery.”
The churches in East Malaysia, mostly of native or tribal origins, are finally waking up to the insidious dakwah activities. But whether this is too late remains to be seen. Today, Sabah has lost its majority Christian population to Muslims and as a result, the state government has been able to pass through apostasy law, ban for Christians from using the word Allah (God), and other Islamic laws in this state.
The Last “Christian” State Standing
Sarawak is now the only state in Malaysia with a Christian majority. Yet, it is finding itself contending with the Federal government on a number of religious liberty issues: the Allah ban, the confiscation of the local language bibles, and just recently, the citizens’ rights to legally change religion to Christianity. Such is the case Rooney Rebit.
Rooney Rebit, a 41-year-old Sarawakian Christian, was converted to Islam by his parents at the age of eight. He tried to change his religion in his identity card from Islam to Christianity, but failed. The National Registration Department (NRD) required him to obtain permission to “apostate” from the Sharia Courts.
As a Christian, he refused to be subjected to the Islamic courts, and thus sued the NRD to compel them to make the change. He won his case at the Sarawak High Court, but soon the NRD filed an appeal against it. Nearing general election times, Prime Minister Najib Razak promised that the NRD would withdraw its appeal, but it remains to be seen whether the promise was sincere or just another political maneuver.
Image: A traditional Malay Wedding
Is there Hope for the Church—and the Malays?
East Malaysian native Christians share close similarities with the Malay Muslims in West Malaysia in various aspects—ethnically, linguistically, culturally, and relationally. It is much easier for both groups to form relationship and friendship with each other.
Such natural friendships open up avenues for the sharing of the Gospel to the Malay Muslims, not for the specific purpose of proselytizing which the law has made ‘illegal’, but to facilitate spiritual dialogues between friends. Dialogues, such as the difference between Islam and Christianity, may help them find the love of God in Christ Jesus on their own through the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
A whole different scenario could unfold should the native Christians be equipped to contend with Muslims who try to proselytize them—that in response to the every dakwah attempt, believers share the message of Christ and salvation. This would make a huge difference, both in the spread of the Gospel and in arresting the numerical decline of Christians. Fortunately, a growing number of Christian leaders and organizations are training native believers with the much-needed apologetic skills.
“Taken together, these Christians have an economy of scale as a religious and spiritual entity with missional and confessional force. If they build upon their collective strengths, these 1.9 million ‘religiously and spiritually aware’ native Christians will be a force to be reckoned with by the agents of Islamization,” shares Pastor M.
- ‘Effect & Contemporary Islamization in Malaysia’, ‘Islamization & Minorities in Malaysia’, ‘State-led Islamization’ and ‘The Church and Islamization of Politics in Malaysia’ by Pastor M (not his real name).
- Assalamualaikum, Observations on the Islamization of Malaysia by Zaid Ibrahim.
- Religious Liberty After 50 Years by NECF Malaysia.
- Moderates & Extremists in Malaysia by Kua Kia Soong.