|2000 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom:
Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
U.S. Department of State, September 5, 2000
The Constitution provides for freedom of religion; however, the Government places some restrictions on this right. Islam is the official religion; however, the practice of Islamic beliefs other than Sunni Islam is restricted significantly.
There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.
The country's various believers generally live amicably. Religious minorities generally worship freely although with some restrictions. The Government enforces some restrictions on the establishment of non-Muslim places of worship and on the activities of political opponents in mosques.
The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.
Section I. Government Policies on Freedom of Religion
The Constitution provides for freedom of religion; however, the Government places some restrictions on this right. Islam is the official religion; however, the practice of Islamic beliefs other than Sunni Islam is restricted significantly. Religious minorities include Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, and Sikh communities. Government funds support an Islamic religious establishment (the Government also grants limited funds to non-Islamic religious communities), and it is official policy to "infuse Islamic values" into the administration of the country. The Government imposes Islamic religious law on Muslims only in some matters and does not impose Islamic law beyond the Muslim community. Adherence to Islam is considered intrinsic to Malay ethnic identity, and therefore Islamic religious laws bind ethnic Malays.
According to government census figures, in 1991 59 percent of the population were Muslim; 18 percent practiced Buddhism; 8 percent Christianity; 6 percent Hinduism; 5 percent Confucianism, Taoism, or other religions that originated in China; 1 percent animism; and 0.5 percent other faiths, including Sikhism and the Baha'i Faith. Estimates of the religious practices of the remainder were not stated.
Non-Muslims are concentrated in East Malaysia, major urban centers, and other areas.
In February 2000, the opposition-controlled state of Kelantan announced plans to form an Interreligious Council. Governmental Restrictions on Religious Freedom
For Muslims, particularly ethnic Malays, the right to leave the Islamic faith and adhere to another religion is a controversial question, and in practice it is very difficult for Muslims to change religions. Persons who wish to do so face severe obstacles. The legal process of conversion is unclear; in practice it is very difficult for Muslims to change their religion legally. In March 1999, the country's highest court ruled that secular courts have no jurisdiction to hear applications by Muslims to change religions. According to the ruling, the religious conversion of Muslims is solely the jurisdiction of Islamic courts. If the High Court continues to affirm this ruling in future cases, it would make conversion of Muslims nearly impossible in practice.
The issue of Muslim apostasy is very sensitive. In 1998 after a controversial incident of attempted conversion, the Government stated that apostates (i.e., Muslims who wish to leave or have left Islam for another religion) would not face government punishment as long as they did not defame Islam after their conversion. The Government opposes what it considers deviant interpretations of Islam, maintaining that the "deviant" groups' extreme views endanger national security. In the past, the Government imposed restrictions on certain Islamic schools, primarily the small number of Shi'a. The Government continues to monitor the activities of the Shi'a minority, and the Government periodically detained members of what it considers Islamic "deviant sects" without trial or charge under the Internal Security Act (ISA) during the period covered by this report. In April 2000, the state of Perlis passed a Shari'a law subjecting Islamic "deviants" and apostates to 1 year of "rehabilitation." In early 2000, other states were reportedly considering similar Shari'a laws. (Under the Constitution, religion, including Shari'a law, is a state matter.) However, there were no reports of arrests for apostasy.
In June 2000, the Government announced that all Muslim civil servants must attend religious classes, but only Islamic classes would be held. In addition only teachers approved by the Government would be employed.
The Government generally respects non-Muslims' right of worship; however, state governments carefully control the building of non-Muslim places of worship and the allocation of land for non-Muslim cemeteries. Approvals for such permits sometimes are granted very slowly. After a violent conflict in Penang between Hindus and Muslims in March 1998, the Government announced a nationwide review of unlicensed Hindu temples and shrines. However, implementation was not vigorous, and the program is no longer a subject of public debate. In July 1999, the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Sikhism (MCCBCHS), a nongovernmental organization representing minority religions, protested the planned implementation of Ministry of Housing and Local Government guidelines governing new non-Muslim places of worship. The MCCBCHS specifically complained that the guidelines required an area to have at least 2,000 adherents to a particular non-Muslim faith for a new non-Muslim place of worship to be approved (no such requirement exists for Muslim places of worship). The group also complained that, under the guidelines, the State Islamic Council must approve the establishment of all non-Muslim places of worship. In September 1999, the Government agreed to revise the proposed guidelines. By mid-2000, the guidelines still had not been implemented, and there were no reports on the status of the revisions.
Proselytizing of Muslims by members of other religions is prohibited strictly, although proselytizing of non-Muslims faces no obstacles. The Government discourages--and in practical terms forbids--the circulation in peninsular Malaysia of Malay-language translations of the Bible and distribution of Christian tapes and printed materials in Malay. However, Malay-language Christian materials are available. Some states have laws that prohibit the use of Malay-language religious terms by Christians, but the authorities do not enforce them actively. The distribution of Malay-language Christian materials faces few restrictions in East Malaysia. Visas for foreign Christian clergy are restricted severely.
For Muslim children, religious education according to a government-approved curriculum is compulsory. There are no restrictions on home instruction.
The Government generally restricts remarks or publications that might incite racial or religious disharmony. This includes some statements and publications critical of particular religions, especially Islam. The Government also restricts the content of sermons at mosques. After the November 1999 national elections, the Government significantly expanded efforts to restrict the activities of the Islamic opposition party at mosques. Several states announced measures including banning opposition-affiliated imams from speaking at mosques, more vigorously enforcing existing restrictions on the content of sermons, replacing mosque leaders and governing committees thought to be sympathetic to the opposition, and threatening to close down unauthorized mosques with ties to the opposition. The Government justified such measures as necessary to oppose the "politicization of religion" by the opposition.
There were no reports of religious detainees or prisoners during the period covered by this report.
There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covering by this report.
Forced Religious Conversion of Minor U.S. Citizens
There were no reports of the forced religious conversion of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.
Section II. Societal Attitudes
The country's various believers generally live amicably. The Government has a comprehensive system of preferences in housing, education, business, and other areas for Bumiputras, ethnic Malay Muslims, and a few other groups that practice various religions.
Ecumenical and interfaith organizations of the non-Muslim religions exist and include the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Sikhism, the Malaysian Council of Churches, and the Christian Federation of Malaysia. Muslim organizations generally do not participate in ecumenical bodies.
Section III. U.S. Government Policy
The U.S. Embassy discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the overall context of the promotion of human rights. Embassy representatives have met with some religious leaders.
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