Right to equal opportunities for worship

By Hariati Azizan (The Star)

IN MANY parts of Malaysia, it is common to have diverse places of worship clustered together within the same vicinity. In the famed heritage sites of Penang and Malacca, for instance, the azan calls from the mosque, chants from the Chinese temples and ringing of bells from the churches and Indian temples are very much part of the quarter’s daily cacophony.

With their proximity to people’s homes, these “holy houses” often play a central role in the neighbourhood, including as social outlets and learning centres for the respective communities.

Selangor Mufti Datuk Setia Mohd Tamyes Abdul Wahid explains that Islam does not forbid its followers to buy a house near a temple or other religions’ places of worship if they feel that it will not prevent them from practising their religion.

“However, the Hadith does encourage Muslims to find out who their neighbours will be before settling in a place. This is to ensure that they can lead a peaceful and comfortable life,” he says.

He stresses that Islam does not forbid people of other faith to practise their religion.

“But there are rules for building their places of worship. Leaders of Islamic countries are required to provide guidelines so that the other religions’ places of worship do not obstruct Muslims’ places of worship or mosques,” he says.

One rule is that non-Muslims cannot build a place of worship that is bigger or taller than a mosque.

Islam is a tolerant religion, he adds. “If you look at its history, you will see how Muslims lived side by side peacefully with the Jews – they were involved in the business and administration affairs of Madinah, and they helped to defend the ancient city alongside the Muslims.

“The prophet was friendly with his non-Muslim neighbours; he visited them when they were sick. There was mutual respect between the different religions. But on matters of Islamic law (Syariah) and faith (Aqidah) there was no compromise,” he notes.

Need to have easy access

As for the Sri Maha Mariamman temple embroiled in a controversy over its relocation in Shah Alam, temple committee chairman R.S. Kumar says all they want is a place of worship that is accessible to Hindu residents.

“That is really what we want for our temple, to be accessible for us not only for prayers but also for community activities,” he says. The temple in Section 19 was to be relocated to Section 23 but residents there protested against the move.

“We were not keen to move to Section 23. We accepted the decision because most of us don’t live near the current location of the temple anyway. We just want one that is easy to get to as we have at least two prayers every day and various holy days and festivals throughout the year. A temple is integral to the Hindus’ daily life,” he says.

Kumar concedes that most of the original estate community have now moved away from the temple, but it is still the nearest place of worship for the Hindu devotees of Section 19, 20 and 21 of Shah Alam.

The 150-year-old temple, he shares, holds a special place in the hearts of the community members, many of whom grew up in the estates that covered vast areas of what is now Shah Alam. The state government started developing these former estate areas to meet the needs of the booming industrial sector and growing population. In the late 1960s, the Selangor State Development Corp (PKNS) started buying land from the Sungai Renggam estate, with a plan to build a township where 60% to 80% of the residents would be Malays.

When the area became developed, many of the temples, some of them more than a century old like the Sri Maha Mariamman Temple, were slowly surrounded by Malay-Muslim majority neighbourhoods.

The government has sought to relocate the temples but the only alternative sites open are the industrial areas within the city, says Shah Alam City Council (MBSA) councillor K. Uthayasoorian.

“This is problematic because they are usually far from the residential areas, so they are not easy to get to and public transport is bad. But all the land near the residential areas are either developed or in Malay-Muslim majority neighbourhoods,” he says.

Clearer guidelines needed

It is also difficult to find suitable sites for Hindu temples in Shah Alam as the guidelines are vague and require the temple committees, the MBSA, PKNS and the state government to come to an agreement, he argues.

Academic Datuk Dr Denison Jayasooria feels that clearer guidelines are essential.

“For instance, we will never find any place in Malaysia where there are majority Indians. In most housing areas, less that 7%, 10%, 15% of the community are Indians. Then, most individual Indian communities are made up of Hindus and a small percentage are Christians,” he says.

Dr Jayasooria, a research fellow at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Institute of Ethnic Studies, highlights the danger of creating mono-ethnic housing areas.

“We will create another problem if we have an Indian-only or Malay-only kampung or taman. This is something that we need to be careful of in a multi-cultural society like ours,” Dr Jayasooria adds.

Hence, the need to strengthen the relationship between races.

“Religious and cultural tolerance from the dominant community is especially critical; if they are tolerant then there will not be any dissatisfaction from the minority community. And the state has to provide for all religious communities and not let certain forces undermine this,” he urges.

Lawyer K. Shanmuga proposes a specific law dealing with places of worship be introduced, such as that practised in the United States called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

Passed in 2000, RLUIPA is a federal statute aimed at providing stronger protection for religious freedom in the land-use and prison contexts in the country.

In Malaysia, he points out, it is enshrined under the Federal Constitution that every religious group has the right to practise their religion freely and have a place of worship.

“But when they want to build that place of worship, they need to comply with the local council guidelines and the ordinary planning laws. And the implementation can be arbitrary,” says Shanmuga who has previously worked closely with the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST).

For Kumar, their requirements for a new temple site are simple. In addition to accessibility, it has to be built in a “good” place.

“A good place means we cannot have it near a sewage plant, for example, or on a former cemetery. And the temple should face east.”