No definite agreement yet between Idris Jala and Christian leaders

Written by Dr Ng Kam Weng, CPI

Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Idris Jala issued a press statement in The Star (March 23, 2011) which gives the impression that the government has made a great offer to Christians in solving the Alkitab issue. Christians should remain guarded about the terms of the offer.

First, the press statement undermines trust in the negotiation process. The Christian Federation of Malaysia (CFM) had earlier told Idris that it needed to consult the major stakeholders, the Christian leaders of Sarawak and Sabah, before getting back to him. But Idris evidently preempted the whole process and put up a one-sided statement before receiving a definite reply from CFM. Now the unfair impression is that the Christians are the bad guys holding up the process of settlement and refusing a good offer.

Second, the offer is not as good as it appears.

(1) The words ‘For Christianity’ [to be stamped on the imported bibles] is ambiguous and open to differing interpretations. Given the trajectory of this ongoing dispute, be assured that Umno and government officials will interpret the phrase to mean ‘For Christians only’.

Put the government’s suggestion in context: CFM had already made a compromise with the government in 2005 to print on the cover of the Alkitab the symbol of the cross, along with the caption ‘A Christian Publication’ even though there is no law that requires such an imprint.

The government seemed satisfied then, and for a few years thereafter, that the imprint is sufficient to prevent confusion among “weak Muslims”. But even though the Christians acted in good faith, the government now has reneged on the agreement and wants to substitute it with the phrase, ‘For Christianity’, which is a questionable proposal that can only worsen the dispute in future.

(2) The offer of a directive from the Home Ministry director-general to expedite future importation of the Alkitab is also of questionable value. Lawyers familiar with the government administrative process are doubtful of the effectiveness of the directive from the DG. Such directives have no force of law and can easily be changed or superseded by later directives. It is also an open question whether other government officials will follow the proposed directive (details of which remain unclear) since it stands in conflict with other gazetted government circulars.

Third, assuming that copies of the stamped Alkitab are released – does it then mean Christians can use the words Allah, akhirat, baitullah, rirman Allah, imam, Injil, nabi, salat and wahyu? These words are proscribed by various State enactments but are used in the Alkitab.

The contradiction of the government position becomes glaring in light of the Mufti of Selangor’s objection to the release of the Alkitab on grounds of some Islamic enactments by the State (even though the judgment by Lau Bee Lan in the High Court ruled these enactments to be invalid). It is reasonable to conclude that Muslim officials will “follow their religious conscience” and block future consignments.

Fourth, Idris offers himself as an honest broker in this dispute since he is a Christian and “the only Cabinet minister who is not a member of any political party.” I have no doubt that Idris is a committed Christian who sincerely believes he is just trying to be a peace-maker.