07/04/2014, 00.00
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For Kuala Lumpur priest, pastoral care and inter-faith dialogue are new bishop's challenges

For Fr Lawrence Andrew, editor of The Herald, the new prelate is a "very good and competent person" who has already stressed the importance of dialogue between faiths at a time of interreligious tensions. Religious freedom is under "attack" and "in danger." Sunni Islam is becoming more radical.

Kuala Lumpur (AsiaNews) - The new archbishop of Kuala Lumpur is "a very good and competent person". He will have to focus, as he already has, on the "pastoral care" of the community, as well as "dialogue with other faiths," this according to Fr Lawrence Andrew, editor of the authoritative Catholic weekly The Herald, who spoke to AsiaNews about Fr Julian Leow Beng Kim's appointment as the capital's new archbishop.

The new prelate's predecessor, Mgr Tan Sri Murphy Pakiam, resigned on 6 December 2013 for reasons of age, after heading the archdiocese for ten years.

Mgr Leow was born on 3 January 1964 in Seremban. He completed his studies in philosophy and theology at the major seminary in Penang, and was ordained priest on 20 April 2002 for the Archdiocese of Kuala Lumpur.

An ethnic Chinese, he studied in Rome and served as the dean of studies and formator at the Major Seminary in Penang.

"The new bishop is a prominent figure," Fr Lawrence said, who, in the first hours after his appointment, has already stressed the "importance of interfaith dialogue", an aspect "that he will have to face and on which he will have to insist."

"He will have to be open to dialogue," the priest added. "These first steps are in the right direction." In fact, "He is a prudent man, who listens to people. This means that he is ready to face his new job in a serious and constructive way in order to build a nation and people of faith."

The new bishop's emphasis on interfaith dialogue, which Fr Andrew Lawrence stressed, comes at a critical juncture in the history of Malaysia's Christian community, which has been the recent target of attacks, including church burning, the desecration of Christian graves and the seizure of 300 Bibles in January.

The clash over the use of the word Allah to describe the Christian God is behind the violence. Indeed, what started out as a legal battle between the government and the Catholic weekly The Herald has now become a national controversy.

Fr Lawrence has been a main player and a staunch defender of this battle. His stance has been a clarion call against the "progressive attack" on religious freedom in Malaysia, which is the victim of the authorities' tightening grip. "I reiterate what I have already said: religious freedom is in danger," he told AsiaNews.

This is one of the issues the new archbishop will have to face. For now however, he is not planning to speak out on the controversy surrounding the use of Allah. In the meantime, the legal battle continues, the Malaysian priest said.

What was a "special case involving The Herald now has become a general matter" that is affecting the whole of society and the entire country.

In Malaysia, we are witnessing a gradual "polarisation" of politics and society along nationalist and religious lines. There is a growing push "to superimpose Malay ethnicity and Islam" to the detriment of minorities, Fr Lawrence explained.

Moreover, the radicalisation of Sunni Islam, which is the majority religion, is not limited to Malaysia but is a trend that is happening across the Middle East, particularly in Syria and Iraq, the priest noted.

In Malaysia, Muslim are 60 per cent of the more than 28 million people, Christians are the third largest religious group (after Buddhists) with more than 2.6 million members.

The publication of a Latin-Malay 400 year ago shows that the term Allah was already in use to describe God in the Bible in the local language.

In Kuala Lumpur, out of a population of over 11 million people, Catholics are over 180,000 with 55 priests and 154 religious, but only one permanent deacon.

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