01/04/2008, 00.00
MALAYSIA

Taoist statue deemed “offensive” to Islam raises new controversy over religious freedom

After local authorities approved Mazu statue two years ago, state government halts construction of the goddess of the sea. In July state mufti declared the statue was “offensive” because too close to a mosque. Political opposition and Chinese community protest. The incident is the latest in a string of cases that threaten inter-faith harmony.

Kuala Lumpur (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The construction of the world’s tallest Taoist Goddess of the Sea statue has set off the latest row over religious freedom in Malaysia. The 36-metre (108-foot) statue of Mazu, known as Tin Hau in Hong Kong, should be erected in the fishing village of Kudat on Borneo Island. So far only the platform has been set; the statue itself is waiting some 200 km away in the port town of Kota Kinabalu. Local authorities had approved construction in December 2005 but Sabah state authorities stopped construction saying that the statue was “offensive to Muslim sensitivities.”

Opposition leader Lim Kit Siang, who heads the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party, warned that if the row was not resolved it could hurt multiracial and inter-faith harmony in the hitherto tolerant Malaysia.

“The insensitive controversy objecting to the building of the Mazu statue is created by a small group of Muslims with ulterior political objectives, which setS a dangerous precedent in undermining inter-religious goodwill in Malaysia,” he said.

“All we want is for Mazu Goddess to protect us when we are at sea and our Muslim countrymen have nothing against,” said a local fisherman.

After the state government halted construction Sabah’s mufti issued a fatwa saying the statue was “offensive to Islam” because it was too close to a mosque.

Sabah’s deputy chief minister Chong Kah Kiat, an ethnic Chinese, resigned in protest and in early December took legal action challenging the order to stop construction.

About 60 percent of Malaysia’s 27 million people are ethnic Malay Muslims; 25 per cent are Chinese and 10 per cent, Indians, mostly Hindu or Christian.

Malaysian commentators and minority leaders have sounded the alarm over the growing ‘Islamisation’ of the country and the increasing polarisation of the three main ethnic communities, which mix much less than in the past.

In recent weeks there have been other controversies, including a ban issued by the Ministry of Internal Security on the use of the word ‘Allah’ for God by the Herald, a Catholic weekly.

Catholics and Protestants have also had their right to build places of worship severely restricted.

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