10/31/2006, 00.00
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British admire Malaysia's "religious harmony", says deputy PM

According to UK deputy PM, Malaysia has done a good job in promoting freedom of religion and respect amongst its various ethnic groups. However, talking about religion and proselytising among Muslims have been banned. A Christian woman who converted from Islam is still trying to get the authorities to recognise her choice.

Kuala Lumpur (AsiaNews) – The United Kingdom is keen to learn from the Malaysian experience in promoting tolerance and harmony amongst its many ethnic groups, said Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, quoting his British counterpart, John Prescott, who began a four-day visit on October 28. Still, discussing issues of a religious nature in Malaysia is subject to a ban imposed last summer by the government. And interethnic relations are wrought with many difficulties, not the least for would-be converts from Islam.

According to Najib, the UK deputy prime minister expressed his appreciation for the fact that non Muslims are able to practice their religion in a country like Malaysia where is Islam is the state religion. However, most of Malaysia's states have some kind of ban on proselytising by other religions towards Muslims. And in July, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi urged the four states without any legislation in the matter to adopt similar laws.

Mr Badawi was also instrumental in 2004 in getting bibles in Bahasa Malaysia stamped with the words "Not for Muslims" on their cover and sold only in Christian bookstores and churches. Similarly, Mr Badawi's ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) has pursued policies designed to favour Islam and majority ethnic Malays.

Prescott, according to Najib, believes that inter-faith dialogue promotes respect between communities and understanding and respect for each others' positions, whilst trying to understand each others' arguments.

Badawi, who is considered a moderate, is however under pressure from powerful Islamic factions, and increasingly seems to view religious freedom as a source of conflict rather than a human right to protect.

At the end of last July he ordered an end to inter-faith dialogue because it was causing tensions in a society where several religious groups live side by side.

The decision was prompted by the Lina Joy case. Ms Joy, a Muslim-born woman who converted to Christianity, has been fighting to have the authorities recognised her choice. Because she is ethnic Malay, she is automatically considered Muslim and cannot change religion.

Islamic courts, not secular courts, have been given jurisdiction on all religious matters involving ethnic Malays,

Article 11 of the Malaysian constitution enshrines freedom of religion, but non Muslims have complained of daily discrimination in a country with a Sunni Malays Muslim majority.

Out of a population of just over 24 million, Muslims constitute 47.7 per cent of the total. The remainder is divided between Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and cults like Shamanism.

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