Christian Churches urge faithful to participate in Sarawak state election

The election in Malaysia's Sarawak state “could develop a route toward greater Sarawak autonomy” in the country

The Association of Churches in Sarawak (ACS) issued a call to the faithful this week to participate in the upcoming Sarawak state election on December 18.

A report on the website of rights group International Christian Concern (ICC) said the political exercise in Malaysia “could develop a route toward greater Sarawak autonomy” in the country.

Sarawak has the largest Christian population in Malaysia even as Christians make up less than 10 percent of the population of the country, a self-proclaimed Islamic nation.

Christians outnumber Muslims in the State of Sarawak representing 42 percent of the state’s population, compared to 28 percent.

The ICC report said the election this weekend holds a “serious potential for greater Sarawak autonomy.”

It said that Christians in the Malaysian state are “becoming more empowered as Malaysian citizens as they have an opportunity to expand protections for religious minorities.”

Malaysia’s Constitution defines a “Malay” as born with roots to Malaya and is of the Muslim faith.

Although the Constitution outlines the rights of all citizens to have freedom of religion, “the system classifies only Muslims as ‘true Malays,’” said the ICC report.

“To be a ‘Malay’ offers one certain extra privileges and rights in the country,” such as spaces in university and seats in public office. It has even been used as a justification for a reserved seat at a restaurant table.

“This system of affirmative action strips Malaysian citizens of their heritage, and often their opportunities if they convert away from Islam,” said the report, adding that the well-regulated system also represents the foundations for the nation’s Sharia courts, which have jurisdiction over Muslims.

Under the Malaysian Constitution, the states are empowered to establish Sharia courts to govern matters of family, domestic, and religious life for Muslims in the country.

While these courts have no official jurisdiction over non-Muslims, there have been several instances of overlap based on the rules established at the state-level, typically in cases of apostasy, noted the ICC.

The limitations on jurisdiction has not fully prevented members of national and state governments to attempt to expand their reach – this was seen with legislative bill RUU355, which sought to limit the propagation of non-Islamic religions as a power of the Sharia courts.

The ICC said this weekend’s election will provide Christians the opportunity “to protect the continued freedom of religion enshrined in the Malaysian constitution.”

“A greater autonomy could allow the state to scale back the reach of Sharia courts over non-Muslims and expand religious freedom to a higher-level than offered by the Constitution’s fundamental liberties alone,” it added.

The ACS said it is not taking a political position in the election but urged Christians “to vote with their conscience.”

Related Stories