Vatican envoy apologises, denies meddling in local affairs

(MM) – The Vatican’s envoy to Malaysia today offered his apology over the “inconveniences” that followed his remarks on the “Allah” controversy, telling Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Anifah Aman in a meeting that he had not meant these to intrude on Malaysian matters.

The Vatican’s embassy here said that its envoy, Archbishop Joseph Marino (picture), had at noon spoken with Anifah, after the latter had asked for a meeting with the diplomat at the ministry over the matter.

“He (the ambassador) was grateful to the minister for the meeting during which he assured him that the comments were never intended as an attempt to intrude into the internal affairs of the country.

“In that context, he asked him to convey apologies for any misunderstandings and inconveniences that it may have caused,” the Apostolic Nunciature said in a three-paragraph statement that was emailed to The Malay Mail Online today.

In the same statement, the Vatican’s embassy said Marino had told Anifah that he ”firmly believes that inter-religious dialogue is the means to promote good relations among peoples of different faiths, who can discover the beauty of each others’ beliefs”.

“Consequently, he assured the Minister of the commitment of this Mission to promote closer relations among all religions,” it said.

Earlier today, Sabah MP Datuk Bung Mokhtar Radin urged the government to eject Marino from the country, claiming that the Vatican’s first ambassador to Malaysia had interfered in the “Allah” dispute here, while accusing the latter of disrupting the country’s unity.

Last week, Minister in charge of Islamic affairs Datuk Seri Jamil Khir Baharom slammed the ambassador over the issue, accusing him of causing anxiety among the public and threatening the unity among Malaysians.

Prior to the meeting today, Anifah had issued a strongly-worded statement last Sunday over the alleged meddling into the “Allah” controversy, which he deemed to be Malaysia’s internal affairs.

In his first media interview here last Thursday, Marino, the Vatican’s first envoy to Malaysia, observed that the “Allah” storm that has been raging here for the past five years was unique to this Southeast Asian nation due to the widespread use of the Malay language, the lingua franca of Malaysia’s Bumiputera Christians.

He indicated that the local churches have presented a “logical and acceptable” argument to counter the allegations by some hardline Muslims here that “Allah”, a word of Middle Eastern origin, was exclusive to Islam.

“But the document that they produce seems to be very well-presented in terms of explaining why Christians use this word,” the Apostolic Nuncio said, referring to the Christian Federation of Malaysia’s (CFM) fact sheet on the “Allah” released a couple of months ago.

But Marino carefully pointed out that the ongoing appeal by the Home Ministry to reverse a 2009 High Court judgment in favour of the Catholic Church was an “internal matter” when asked to comment further on the dispute.

This later led to calls from far-right Muslim and Malay rights groups for his censure and even expulsion from Malaysia.

The High Court had stirred waves when it ruled in 2009 that the “Allah” word was not the exclusive right of Muslims, and the Catholic Church’s newspaper, Herald, could publish it in its Bahasa Malaysia section, which caters to its Bumiputera congregation.

The “Allah” row erupted in 2008 when the Home Ministry threatened to revoke the Herald’s newspaper permit, prompting the Catholic Church to sue the government for violating its constitutional rights.

Muslims are the country’s dominant religious group and represent over 60 per cent of Malaysia’s population of 28 million, while Christians make up less than a tenth of the number.

A 2010 census puts Christians as Malaysia’s third-largest religious group at 2.6 million people, with slightly over one million of them being Catholics. About 64 per cent of the Christians here are Bumiputera and Malay-speaking.