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International Religious Freedom Report 2004
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion; however, the Government placed some restrictions on this right. Sunni Islam is the official religion, and the practice of non-Sunni Islamic beliefs is significantly restricted. Non-Muslims are free to practice their religious beliefs with few restrictions.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.

The generally amicable relationship among believers in various religions in society contributed to religious freedom.

The U.S. Government maintained an active dialogue with leaders and representatives of various religious groups. The U.S. Embassy sponsored several major events to discuss religious freedom. In 2003, Embassy officials protested anti-Semitic language used by then-Prime Minister Mahathir during his address to the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) in Kuala Lumpur.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has a total area of approximately 127,000 square miles and a population of approximately 25 million. According to 2000 census figures, approximately 60.4 percent of the population were Muslim; 19.2 percent practiced Buddhism; 9.1 percent Christianity; 6.3 percent Hinduism; and 2.6 percent Confucianism, Taoism, and other traditional Chinese religions. The remainder was accounted for by other faiths, including animism, Sikhism, and Baha'i.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion; however, it recognizes Islam as the country's official religion and the practice of Islamic beliefs other than Sunni Islam is significantly restricted. The Government provides financial support to an Islamic religious establishment and also provides more-limited funds to non-Islamic communities. State governments impose Islamic religious law on Muslims in some matters but generally do not interfere with the religious practices of the non-Muslim community. Prime Minister Abdullah is a proponent of moderate, progressive "Hadhari" Islam. Some observers believe support for this policy among Malaysians contributed to his March election victory over the opposition Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS), which advocates a stricter Islamic agenda.

Religious organizations must register with the Registrar of Societies or with one of the constituent bodies of the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Sikhism (MCCBCHS) to qualify for government grants and other benefits.

For Muslim children, religious education according to a government-approved curriculum is compulsory in public schools. Private schools are free to offer a non-Islamic religious curriculum as an option for non-Muslims. Non-Muslim students are required to take non-religious morals and ethics education. There are no restrictions on home instruction. In 2002, the Government suspended an annual grant to 260 privately run Muslim religious schools on grounds that the students were being instructed to oppose the Government.

Several religious holidays are recognized as official holidays, including Hari Raya Puasa (Muslim), Hari Raya Qurban (Muslim), the Prophet's birthday (Muslim), Wesak Day (Buddhist), Deepavali (Hindu), Christmas (Christian), and, in East Malaysia, Good Friday (Christian).

In 2002 and 2003, the National Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) initiated interfaith dialogues aimed at promoting better understanding and respect among the country's religious groups. Participants included representatives from the Malaysian Islamic Development Department, the Malaysian Ulama Association, and the MCCBCHS.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

In practice Muslims are not permitted to convert to another religion. In several recent rulings, secular courts have ceded jurisdiction to the Islamic courts in matters involving conversion to or from Islam. In 2001, a High Court judge rejected the application of a woman who converted to Christianity and requested that the term "Islam" be removed from her identity card. The judge held that the Islamic court had jurisdiction in the application. In 2000, an Islamic court sentenced four persons to 3-year prison terms for not recanting their alleged heretical beliefs and "return[ing] to the true teachings of Islam." The court rejected their argument that they were not subject to Islamic (Shari'a) law because they had ceased to be Muslims. Dismissing their appeal, the Court of Appeal ruled in 2002 that only the Islamic court is qualified to determine whether a Muslim has become an apostate. The case is pending a final decision in the Federal Court.

In a 2004 ruling, the Kuala Lumpur High Court held that only the Islamic Court had jurisdiction over a suit by a non-Muslim mother to nullify the conversion of her two children to Islam without her agreement. The father converted to Islam after he became estranged from his wife and allegedly converted his two infant children to gain custody over them. The MCCBCHS said the ruling "tramples over the rights of non-Muslim parents." The mother filed an appeal, which was pending at the end of the period covered by this report.

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 groups, primarily the small number of Shi'a residents. The Government continues to monitor the activities of the Shi'a minority.

Control of mosques is exercised at the state level rather than by the federal Government; state religious authorities appoint imams to mosques and provide guidance on the content of sermons. While practices vary from state to state, both the Government and the opposition Islamic party have attempted to use mosques in the states they control to deliver politically oriented messages. In recent years, several states controlled by the ruling coalition government 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. Similarly, in states controlled by the opposition Islamic party some government-affiliated imams have been banned from speaking. These decisions vary from state to state.

In 2002, the Government began enforcing a requirement that all Muslim civil servants attend religious classes taught by government-approved teachers.

Proselytizing of Muslims by members of other religions is strictly prohibited, although proselytizing of non-Muslims faces no obstacles. The Government discourages but does not ban the distribution in the peninsular portion of the country of Malay-language translations of the Bible, Christian tapes, and other printed materials. The distribution of Malay-language Christian materials faces few restrictions in East Malaysia. In 2003, the Government briefly banned a Bible, translated into the language of the indigenous Iban in Sarawak, on the grounds that the Bible's use of the Islamic phrase "Allah Taala" (Almighty God) could create confusion among Muslims. However, the acting prime minister quickly lifted the ban following the addition of a cross to the cover of the Iban Bible.

In recent years, visas for foreign clergy have not been restricted. While representatives of non-Muslim groups do not sit on the immigration committee that approves visa requests, the MCCBCHS is asked for its recommendation. In 2003, the Government decided to allow automatic renewal of professional visit passes to foreign clergy.

The Government prohibits publications that it alleges might incite racial or religious disharmony, but generally it respects non-Muslims' right of worship.

State governments have authority over the building of non-Muslim places of worship and the allocation of land for non-Muslim cemeteries. Approvals for building permits sometimes are granted very slowly. After years of complaints by non-Islamic religious organizations about the requirement that the Islamic Council in each state approve construction of non-Islamic religious institutions, the Minister of Housing and Local Government announced in 2003 that such approval no longer would be required. Despite this ruling, some religious groups have complained that state policies and local decisions have continued to restrict the construction of non-Muslim places of worship. Unregistered houses of worship may be demolished.

In family and religious matters, all Muslims are subject to Shari'a law. According to some women's rights activists, women are subject to discriminatory interpretations of Shari'a law and inconsistent application of the law from state to state.

State governments in Kelantan and Terengganu have made efforts to restrict Muslim women's dress. In Kelantan, 120 Muslim women were fined in 2002 for not adhering to the dress code. In 2000, the Terengganu state government introduced a dress code for government employees designed to "protect the image of Muslim women and to promote Islam as a way of life." State governments in Kelantan and Terengganu specifically focused on the dress code for Muslim women while encouraging non-Muslim women to dress "modestly." Since the defeat of the opposition Islamic party in Terengganu and their near defeat in Kelantan during the national elections in March, these two state governments appear to have backed away from enforcing dress codes for any women, Muslim or otherwise.

In the March general elections, PAS was defeated in Terengganu and lost control of the state government. In Kelantan, PAS also lost ground but remained in control of the state legislature by a narrow margin. Many observers interpreted the result as a rejection by voters of the strict form of Islam promoted by the Islamic party.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

The Government continues to monitor the activities of the Shi'a minority, and the Government can detain members of what it considers Islamic "deviant sects," namely, groups that do not follow the official Sunni teachings, without trial under the Internal Security Act (ISA). According to the Government, no individuals were detained under the ISA for religious reasons as of the end of the period covered by this report.

The Government is concerned that "deviationist" teachings could cause divisions among Muslims. Members of such groups can be arrested and detained, with the consent of the Islamic court, to be "rehabilitated" and returned to the "true path of Islam." The Selangor Religious Department detained 66 members of a "deviationist" group in 2003 and arrested 96 followers of another "deviationist" sect in April. In 2002, the Government revealed that the Malaysian Islamic Development Department "rehabilitated" hundreds of followers from 125 "deviationist" groups after they underwent "counseling" at a faith rehabilitation center in the state of Negeri Sembilan.

Forced Religious Conversion

There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Abuses by Terrorist Organizations

There were no reported abuses targeted at specific religions by terrorist organizations during the period covered by this report.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom.

Non-Muslim ecumenical and interfaith organizations in the country include the MCCBCHS, the Malaysian Council of Churches, and the Christian Federation of Malaysia. Muslim organizations generally do not participate in ecumenical bodies. In 2003, Muslim NGOs boycotted a workshop entitled "Toward the Creation of an Inter-religious Council" on grounds that it might lead to an endorsement of apostasy, paving the way for other religions to spread their teachings among Muslims.

In October 2003, then-Prime Minister Mahathir used anti-Semitic language during his address to the OIC in Kuala Lumpur. Mahathir's remarks about Jews at the OIC meeting drew international condemnation. Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, who succeeded Mahathir 2 weeks after the OIC speech, subsequently emphasized religious tolerance toward all faiths.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights. In 2003, the U.S. Embassy protested anti-Semitic language used by then-Prime Minister Mahathir during his address to the OIC in Kuala Lumpur.

Embassy representatives maintained an active dialogue with leaders and representatives of various religious groups. The Embassy also sponsored several major events to discuss these issues. One such seminar on "Islam and Human Rights" underscored the connection of key human rights with Islamic values. Focusing on the role of religions and the shared challenges faced in multireligious societies, the Embassy sponsored a conference on religious diversity in the United States and Asia. The U.S. Government also funded a seminar featuring an Islamic perspective on the challenges to women in the 21st century, in which both conservative and liberal Muslims presented papers on the impact of Shari'a law on justice for women. This seminar attracted over 200 participants.

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