International Religious Freedom Report 2003
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion; however, the Government places some restrictions on this right. Although Islam is the official religion, the practice of Islamic beliefs other than Sunni Islam is restricted significantly.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report. Religious minorities generally worship freely, although with some restrictions. The Government enforces some restrictions on the establishment of non-Muslim places of worship and on the activities of political opponents in mosques.

The generally amicable relationship among believers in various religions in society contributed to religious freedom.

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has a total area of approximately 127,000 square miles and a population of approximately 23 million. According to government census figures, in 2000 approximately 60.4 percent of the population were Muslim; 19.2 percent practiced Buddhism; 9.1 percent Christianity; 6.3 percent Hinduism; and 2.6 percent Confucianism, Taoism, and other traditional Chinese religions. The remainder was accounted for by other faiths, including animism, Sikhism, and the Baha'i Faith.

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

In April 2002 and March 2003, the Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) initiated an interfaith dialog aimed at promoting better understanding and respect among the country's religious groups. Participants included representatives from the Malaysian Islamic Development Department, the Malaysian Ulama Association, the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Sikhism (MCCBCHS).

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion; however, Islam is the official religion, and the practice of Islamic beliefs other than Sunni Islam is restricted significantly. In September 2001, the Prime Minister declared that the country was an Islamic state (negara Islam). Government funds support an Islamic religious establishment (the Government also grants limited funds to non-Islamic religious communities), 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 matters and does not impose Islamic law beyond the Muslim community. Adherence to Islam is considered intrinsic to Malay ethnic identity, and therefore Islamic religious laws bind ethnic Malays.

Religious organizations may register with the Registrar of Societies or with one of the constituent bodies of the MCCBCHS. Registration enables organizations to receive government grants and other benefits. Unregistered houses of worship may be demolished.

In 2001 the Government decided not to approve the Falun Gong Preparatory Committee's application to register as a legal organization. However, the Government has not prevented Falun Gong members from carrying out their activities in public.

For Muslim children, religious education according to a government-approved curriculum is compulsory in public schools. There are no restrictions on home instruction. In November 2002, the Government suspended an annual grant to 260 privately-run Muslim religious schools on grounds that the students were being instructed to oppose the Government.

In June 2002, the Government implemented a rule requiring all Muslim civil servants to attend religious classes taught by government-approved teachers.

Several religious holidays are recognized as official holidays, including Hari Raya Puasa (Muslim), Hari Raya Qurban (Muslim), the Prophet's birthday (Muslim), Wesak Day (Buddhist), Deepavali (Hindu), Christmas (Christian), and, in Sabah and Sarawak, Good Friday (Christian).

In August 2002, the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Malaysia urged the Government to set up interreligious councils at national and state levels to promote interreligious understanding among citizens of all faiths. No such council had been created by the end of the period covered by this report.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

Muslims who wish to convert from Islam face severe obstacles. 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 legally. The legal process of conversion is unclear. In 2001 a High Court judge rejected the application of a woman who argued that she had converted to Christianity and requested that the term "Islam" be removed from her identity card. The judge ruled that an ethnic Malay is defined by the Constitution as "a person who professes the religion of Islam." The judge also reaffirmed a 1999 High Court ruling that secular courts have no jurisdiction to hear applications by Muslims to change religions and stated that only an Islamic court has jurisdiction to rule on the woman's supposed renunciation of Islam and conversion to Christianity. In August 2002, the Court of Appeals ruled that only the Islamic court is qualified to determine whether a Muslim has become an apostate. These rulings make conversion of Muslims nearly impossible in practice.

The issue of Muslim apostasy is very sensitive. In 1998 after a controversial incident of attempted conversion, the Government stated that apostates (Muslims who wish to leave or have left Islam for another religion) would not face government punishment as long as they did not defame Islam after their conversion. Leaders of the opposition Islamic Party have stated that the penalty for apostasy should be death.

The Government opposes what it considers deviant interpretations of Islam, maintaining that the "deviant" groups' extreme views endanger national security. In the past, the Government imposed restrictions on certain Islamic groups, primarily the small number of Shi'a residents. The Government continues to monitor the activities of the Shi'a minority.

The Government continues to significantly expand efforts to restrict the activities of the Islamic opposition party at mosques. Several states 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. The Government justified such measures as necessary to oppose the "politicization of religion" by the opposition. In recent years, government officials and ruling party politicians have claimed that opposition Islamic party members were giving political sermons in mosques around the country.

Proselytizing of Muslims by members of other religions is strictly prohibited, although proselytizing of non-Muslims faces no obstacles. The Government discourages--and in practical terms forbids--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 are available. 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 East Malaysia. In April the Government banned a Bible, written in the mother tongue of the indigenous Iban tribe in the East Malaysia state of Sarawak, on the grounds that the use of the phrase "Allah Taala" (Almighty God), a term widely used in Islamic literature, could create confusion among Muslims. However, by the end of April, the Acting Prime Minister lifted the ban following the addition of a cross to the cover of the Iban Bible, indicating to Muslims that the Bible is intended for Christians.

In recent years, visas for foreign clergy no longer have been restricted, and most visas were approved during the period covered by this report. While representatives of non-Muslim groups are no longer invited to sit on the immigration committee that approves such visa requests, the MCCBCHS is asked for its recommendation. Some non-Islamic groups complained that Christian proselytizing campaigns sometimes were conducted in unethical ways and tended to result in heightened religious animosity within the communities in which they took place.

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. Some state governments ban certain Muslim clergymen from delivering sermons.

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. Beginning in 2000, the Government stopped enforcing guidelines requiring the presence of at least 2,000 adherents of a particular non-Muslim faith in a locality for construction of a new non-Muslim place of worship to be approved. However, resistance from local authorities continues, as no such requirement exists for Muslim places of worship. In addition, after years of complaints by non-Islamic religious organizations about the need for the State Islamic Council in each state to approve construction of non-Islamic religious institutions, the Minister of Housing and Local Government announced that such approval no longer would be required. However, it is not known whether this change always is reflected in state policies and local decisions. For example, in Shah Alam, for several years the Selangor state authorities have blocked the construction of a Catholic Church.

In family and religious matters, all Muslims are subject to Shari'a law. According to some women's rights activists, women are subject to discriminatory interpretations of Shari'a law and inconsistent application of the law from state to state.

In February 2002, the pro-opposition Council of Ulamas submitted a memorandum to the Conference of Rulers urging action against six academics who had allegedly belittled the Prophet Mohammed and humiliated Islam in their writings. The Council of Rulers referred the memorandum to the National Council on Islamic Religious Affairs. No action had been taken by the end of the period covered by this report.

State governments in Kelantan and Terengganu, which are controlled by the Islamic opposition party, made efforts to restrict Muslim women's dress. In Kelantan, a total of 120 Muslim women were fined between January and May 2002 for not adhering to the dress code. The Terengganu state government introduced a dress code in 2000 for government employees and workers on business premises. Terengganu's executive counselor in charge of women's and non-Muslims' affairs claimed that the dress code was designed to protect the image of Muslim women and to promote Islam as a way of life. One Muslim women's nongovernmental organization (NGO) criticized the requirement, stating that forced compliance with a state-mandated dress code is not consistent with the values of the Koran. According to an unconfirmed report, Muslim women previously had been fired in Kelantan for not wearing a head covering.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

The Government continues to monitor the activities of the Shi'a minority, and the Government can detain members of what it considers Islamic "deviant sects," i.e., groups that do not follow the official Sunni teachings, without trial or charge under the Internal Security Act (ISA). According to the Government, no individuals were detained under the ISA for religious reasons as of the end of the period covered by this report.

The Government is concerned that "deviationist" teachings could lead people astray and cause divisions among Muslims. Therefore, members of such groups can be arrested and detained, with the consent of the Shari'a (Islamic) court, in order to be "rehabilitated" and returned to the "true path of Islam." In May 2002, the Government revealed that the Malaysian Islamic Development Department has been able to "rehabilitate" hundreds of followers from 125 "deviationist" groups after they underwent "counseling" at a faith rehabilitation center in the state of Negeri Sembilan.

In 2000 the Shari'a High Court in the state of Kelantan, which is controlled by the Islamic opposition party, sentenced four persons to 3 years in prison for disregarding a lower court order to recant their alleged heretical beliefs and "return to the true teachings of Islam." The High Court rejected their argument that Shari'a law has no jurisdiction over them because they had ceased to be Muslims. Dismissing their appeal, the Court of Appeal ruled in August 2002 that only the Shari'a court is qualified to determine whether a Muslim has become an apostate.

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 Attitudes

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom.

The Government has a comprehensive system of preferences in the administration of housing, education, business, and other areas for ethnic Malay Muslims and a few other indigenous groups that practice various religions.

Ecumenical and interfaith organizations of the non-Muslim religions exist and include the MCCBCHS, the Malaysian Council of Churches, and the Christian Federation of Malaysia. Muslim organizations generally do not participate in ecumenical bodies. In May representatives from Muslim NGOs boycotted a workshop titled "Toward the Creation of an Inter-religious Council," organized by the Malaysian Bar Council, on grounds that such a council would have powers to endorse apostasy and could also pave the way for other religions to spread their teachings among Muslims. During an international HIV/AIDS conference, also in May, a significant minority of Muslim participants, both local and international, accused a foreign, female Muslim academician of blasphemy and demonizing Islam for presenting a paper that reportedly stated a traditional Islamic theological approach could never cure the disease.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights. Embassy representatives met and maintained an active dialog with leaders and representatives of various religious groups. The Embassy also sponsored several major events to discuss these issues. One such seminar on "Islam and Human Rights," held in a state controlled by the Islamic opposition party, underscored the connection of human rights with indigenous values and highlighted the key human rights values all share. Another conference on "Religious Pluralism in a Democratic Society" focused on the role of different religions, including Islam, in a changing American landscape and the shared challenges of multi-religious countries.

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