Malaysia: Indigenous Group Sues Over Demolished Church

Monday, January 28, 2008

Local authorities tore down building citing lack of construction permission.

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (Compass Direct News) -- An indigenous church community has filed a lawsuit against local authorities in the state of Kelantan over the demolition of their church building on June 4, 2007.

The state claims that the building was constructed on state land without proper approval. The church of indigenous Temiar Orang Asli people in Gua Musang disputes this, arguing that the building was built on land belonging to village headman Pedik bin Busu, who had donated it to the Temiar Orang Asli community for erection of the worship structure.

According to local media reports, Pedik claimed that nearly everyone in the village had become Christian in February 2007.

The church group is seeking a declaration that they have rights to the land as well as the constitutional guarantee to practice their religion, which includes the right to build a church on their land. They are also seeking a declaration that in demolishing their church building, local authorities violated their rights under the Orang Asli Act (Indigenous People Act) and the federal constitution.

Pastor Moses Soo, who has been providing spiritual guidance to the community since it became mostly Christian last February, reportedly said that they merely wanted to build “a small church to mark their faith.” Following consultation with the Village Development and Security Committee and the Department of Orang Asli Affairs, the villagers began construction of the church building in March 2007 with the help of volunteers.

On his website, Soo said that during construction villagers had received three stop-work orders from local authorities. Officials told the Christians that if they did not comply, they would be fined and/or jailed. In the final letter dated May 24, 2007, the villagers were told the church building would be demolished.

Soo claimed that he and others involved in the construction had been subjected to various acts of intimidation during that time.

The Rev. Wong Kim Kong, secretary-general of the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship, responded by writing two separate letters to local authorities, citing the villagers’ constitutional right to construct the church building under Section 2, 6(1) and 7(1) of the Orang Asli Act 1954.

Despite these protests, local authorities tore down the church building last June 4.

In the weeks following the demolition, and following media exposure of the case, local authorities removed the rubble from the demolished church building site. In its place, it built a smaller multi-purpose hall.

Soo claimed on his website that construction of the multi-purpose hall took place against the villagers’ wishes, as what they wanted was a church building. The villagers then proceeded to file a suit against the local authorities.

The suit, which was scheduled for hearing on January 15, has been postponed to May 26. High court judge Mohammad Azman Husin ordered both parties to submit written arguments of their case.

Many local observers see the church demolition incident as yet another case of overzealous Muslim authorities riding roughshod over the rights of non-Muslim communities.

Series of Lawsuits

The case is the latest in a series of lawsuits launched by Christian groups against the government in recent months over the issue of freedom of religion in the country.

On December 7, 2007, the publisher of a Catholic newspaper, Herald, filed a suit against the government over its right to use the term “Allah” in the Malay segment of its publications. The publisher had received numerous directives from the Internal Security Ministry prohibiting it from using the Arabic word “Allah” for God and was threatened with closure if it persisted to do so.

The government had argued that use of the term might cause confusion among Muslims, who make up about 60 percent of the population.

The Evangelical Church of Borneo (Sidang Injil Borneo, or SIB) is also suing the government for disallowing it from importing Christian educational books for children containing the word “Allah.” A customs officer had seized a consignment of books that arrived at the low cost carrier terminal in Sepang on August 15, 2007.

The case was scheduled for hearing on December 26 but was postponed pending efforts by several outside parties to help resolve matters. The out-of-court settlement failed, and SIB is proceeding with the case.

On January 16, High court Judge Wan Afrah Wan Ibrahim ordered both sides to submit written arguments of their case for hearing on Tuesday (January 29).

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