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KUALA LUMPUR – Putrajaya has unilaterally introduced new curbs on the import of the Alkitab, or the Malay-language Bible, under the Home Ministry’s new SOP or standard operating procedures. It also affects the import and use of other Malay-language Christian publications. But Tan Sri Joseph Kurup, the de facto national unity minister who unveiled the SOP in mid April is quick to assure Church leaders that Barisan Nasional is “sworn” to protect their freedom of religion as guaranteed by the Federal Constitution.
This is far from the truth. The new SOP specifically targets Christians and concerns mainly the import and use of the Alkitab. Such imports are now subject to a law that was originally intended only for Muslims — the Printing of Qur’anic Texts Act 1986. Importers must now apply to the Qura’nic Text Division of the Home Ministry which has the final say whether such imports are allowed. The sole criterion is that such publications cannot contain the word ‘Allah’. This is clearly in contravention of constitutional provisions for freedom of religion.
Article 11 (3a) of the Federal Constitution states, among other things, “Every religious group has the right to manage its own religious affairs.” The right for Malay-speaking Bumiputra Christians to have their own Scriptures in the Malay language is an inalienable universal human right and Putrajaya should not interfere in ecclesiastical matters of other faiths. Two thirds of the Church in Malaysia comprise Malay-speaking Bumiputras in East Malaysia.
What is alarming is that the new SOP comes at a time when the very constitutionality of the prohibition of the use of the word ‘Allah’ to refer to God by Bumiputra Christians is still being litigated in the courts, known as the Jill Ireland Sarawak and SIB Sabah cases. To introduce the new SOP at this stage smacks of not only religious hegemony and arrogance, but it also borders on contempt.
Although the new SOP affects churches and Bumiputra Christians in Peninsular Malaysia most, neither Kurup nor the Home Ministry has consulted nor briefed them.
But Kurup was reported as having told Church leaders in Kuching: “We are not in the business of prosecuting our own people.” He went on to say, “The Barisan Nasional government is a responsible government. We are sworn to protect the Federal Constitution and the freedom of Malaysians to practise their respective religious faith.”
In Kota Kinabalu, he was reported to have said: “I wish to reassure all those present that the BN government is responsible in fully defending the Constitution and freedom of religion, something that the Prime Minister always reminds his Cabinet ministers whenever matters such as this arise in Cabinet meetings.”
It was Kurup who first disclosed that Putrajaya would come out with an SOP, following the confiscation last November of 574 Bahasa Christian books and 419 CDs from Medan at the Low Cost Carrier terminal in Sepang that was enroute to Kota Kinabalu. Kurup intervened and the publications were released. He then said Church leaders would be consulted in drafting the new SOP.
This again, is far from the truth. There were no such consultations. Church leaders were stunned into silence when Kurup met them on April 16 in Kuching, and one week later in Kota Kinabalu, to announce the new SOP. The briefing was by Hashimah Nik Jaafar, head of the Home Ministry’s Qur’anic text division. She only presented the new SOP on PowerPoint slides, but those present insisted on being given a copy. Although almost similar in content, copies of the SOP given at the two briefings were not the same. For instance, one version states that the point of entry for the publications is at KLIA2, while the other did not specify any particular airport. Those present said neither Hashimah nor Kurup would answer any query other than what was presented on the PowerPoint slides. There are no provisions for such publications coming in through ports or land borders in East Malaysia.
Essentially, the nine-point new SOP requires importers of Bahasa Christian publications to apply for an import permit from the Qura’nic texts division of the KDN. This is currently not required. Shipment on transit to Sabah and Sarawak is permitted only with a valid “immediate boarding” ticket. However, any publication with the word ‘Allah’ is permitted to enter Peninsular Malaysia on the basis “only for personal use.” He did not say how the KDN is going to monitor “personal use”.
The bone of contention of the new SOP is that the whole procedure regarding import and use of Bahasa Christian publications is solely and arbitrarily under the jurisdiction of the Qur’anic texts division. The law relied on is the Printing of Qur’anic Texts Act 1986. However, there is no provision in this act to implement the new SOP. Clearly the SOP is defective and ultra vires the constitution. – Herald