Malaysia gets church firebombings and canings

You know it's hard out there for a Christian. I've always felt plenty of guilt -- I blame my Catholic and Jewish roots -- for not feeling more persecuted for my Christian beliefs in the United States. But in many corners of the world Christians get all the persecution they can handle.

Earlier this month, Morocco expelled Christian workers who, according to the LA Times' Babylon and Beyond blog, were accused of proselytizing to orphaned children. Seems likely if Christian-led orphanages in Morocco are anything like they are in sub-Saharan Africa. Let's not forget the Christians massacred in Nigeria this month. And the historic communities in the Middle East -- dwindling to the point of starvation.

But what about if we headed farther east?

In Malaysia, the AP reported this weekend that Muslims were protesting another cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad. (This time Muhammad was depicted as a dog in several Swedish newspapers. That this keeps occurring gives rise to an entirely different discussion of religion in the media; GetReligion was there in the beginning.) But it turns out that Malaysia is site of a broader battle of religions, and it's having ugly consequences for Christians in the predominantly Muslim country.

Under the vanilla headline "Religious tensions flare in Malaysia," LAT veteran Mark Magnier an informative piece that opens with the firebombing of 11 churches and the canings of three Muslim teens who became pregnant out of wedlock. But I'll skip that and go straight to the money quote:

"It hurts your international reputation," said Kharis Idris, director of the MyFuture Foundation, which promotes multicultural engagement. "Church burning doesn't sound good in any country. If it goes on, it will be bad for the economy. And if someone were to kill someone, all hell could break loose."

An interesting choice of words, to say the least. I wonder if Idris spoke English proficiently or if the idea of hell breaking loose is pretty universal. Magnier went on to lay the groundwork:

The spark for the wave of violence was a successful challenge by the Herald, a Catholic weekly, of a government ban on continued use of the word "Allah" by Christians to describe God. The court has stayed its late-December decision pending a government appeal.

Analysts say the case has inflamed passions among politicians pandering for votes and extremists who have an interest in upsetting Malaysia's delicate blend of religion and ethnicity.

King Sultan Mizan Zainal Abidin referred to the controversy Monday in his annual speech to Parliament, calling on all parties to "avoid raising sensitive issues that could jeopardize public peace."

This year Malaysia has seen the firebombing or vandalizing of 11 churches, two Muslim prayer halls, a mosque, the offices of the Catholic newspaper's attorneys and a Sikh temple.

OK, now we're talking. Magnier, a veteran of the LAT's Far East bureaus, has this story running on all cylinders.

It's framed within the prism of domestic and global politics, but he quickly takes us into the ground-level battle over the use of the name "Allah." He visits with a priests who points in a Malay-Latin dictionary to that name being used for God; he also talks with conservative Muslims who fear the dual use of the term will confuse some Muslims and lead them to mistakenly convert. I don't buy this argument, but it's important that Magnier includes it because it is motivating much of what is happening in Malaysia.

Magnier than turns back to the teenage girls who were caned, the first time this had happened in Malaysia, and then to an odd incident than many saw as a bit of false-flag incitement:

After hog heads were tossed into two mosques, a rumor spread that it might have been done by extremist Muslims to spur outrage to their political advantage. Pigs are considered unclean by Muslims.

Again, Magnier quickly explains why such an odd act would in fact be offensive in a Muslim country. I assume most are familiar with the idea that pigs are unclean, but not everyone is, and so this too was an important quick addition to a nice detail within the story.

The only question really left unanswered, and it felt a bit intentional, was whether extremist Muslim groups were finding a foothold in Malaysia as they have in many neighboring or whether they were being repulsed.

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