Church survival and complicity

(The Nut Graph) THIS is not another commentary on “Allah” and its usage, nor is it about the attacks against churches, a Catholic school and a Sikh gurdwara after the issue spiralled out of control. It is instead about the private dilemma the Malaysian Church faces in publicly responding to the government’s act of stripping non-Muslims, especially Christians, of their rights.

Calling for calm, praying for the nation and retaliating with forgiveness are all “givens” in a Christian response. And these must continue. But is the Malaysian Church’s instinct for survival getting in the way of holding government leaders accountable?

After all, the Church is dealing with a government that gives RM500,000 as compensation to a fire-gutted church but at the same time disregards minority rights by infringing on religious freedom. This same government also applies double-standards in allowing demonstrations without a permit. The government’s duplicity continues when it first urges Bahasa Malaysia-speaking Christians to drop the word “Allah“, and tells state Islamic councils to appeal the High Court’s ruling on The Herald, but then calls for inter-faith dialogue.

As if to paper over these inconsistencies, another arm of government is apparently despatched to do damage control. One of the Barisan Nasional (BN)’s most senior members, race-based MCA, comes to the rescue by offering the use of its party headquarters to the burnt church.

Within this political context then, isn’t Metro Tabernacle Church’s acceptance of the government funds and the use of Wisma MCA discomfiting?

Difficult reality

Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount (public domain / Wiki commons)
This commentary is not meant to single out Metro Tabernacle or to criticise it. Nor is this meant to tell the church what it should or should not have done. The incident merely provides a timely platform to assess the Malaysian churches’ situation as a minority group that has a spiritual mandate to stand against injustice.

The reality is undoubtedly difficult. Could Metro Tabernacle, or any other church in a similar situation, have turned down the compensation money? After all, providing funds for houses of worship of all faiths is part of the government’s duty. Especially since all Malaysians — Muslims and non-Muslims — pay taxes, allocations should be fairly made for all places of worship, not just favouring one faith over another.

Metro Tabernacle lay leader and spokesperson Peter Yeow told The Nut Graph the church welcomed assistance from any quarter, including politicians across the spectrum. As to using MCA’s hall, it was a logical and practical solution to the emergency, he added.

“We have a large congregation and this involves parking and other logistics. We were in the process of renting another hall and other churches had also offered us their premises but we would be inconveniencing them. So we accepted when MCA made the offer as their hall was immediately available,” Yeow said in a phone interview.

On Sunday, 10 Jan 2010, when the church held its first worship service at MCA after the arson attack, senior pastor Rev Ong Sek Leang took pains to stress that the church was apolitical. Attending the service were politicians from both sides of the divide. Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon was the highest-ranking Barisan Nasional leader. There were also lower-ranking leaders from the MCA and the DAP present.

Demanding accountability

Being apolitical, however, is not the same as not participating in changing political culture. And the BN government must be given a clear message, and not just once every five years, that its system of communal politics must end. It cannot do one thing to appease one ethnic or religious group at the expense of other groups, and then conduct damage control by utilising its race-based parties.

A clear sign of the government’s sincerity?

The government’s move to placate Christians as a reaction to the arson attacks must be seen for what it is — communal politics employed with the usual divide-and-conquer strategy. It would be nice to think that the compensation and offer of a BN party’s premises to Metro Tabernacle are acts of kindness — a “sign of the government’s sincerity”, to quote Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak.

But should we be so naïve when it comes to any political party, no matter whether they are from the BN or from Pakatan Rakyat? After all, every single political party in Malaysia is already preparing for the next general election.

Furthermore, piecemeal assistance like this is a knee-jerk reaction and a public relations diversion from what should have been the government’s priorities in the first place. Firstly, ensuring safety to targeted groups instead of telling churches to hire their own security guards; secondly and to go back even further, allowing genuine inter-faith dialogue based on historical facts about the use of “Allah”. Instead, the government unilaterally gazetted the 1986 ban on this and three other words for non-Muslims, and then played both sides with Muslims and Christians.

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