Malaysia’s religious registration requirement is a heavy burden to their freedom, non-Muslims say in a new documentary produced by the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC).
A Malaysian Christian mother shares in an ERLC-produced video documentary how her misidentification as a Muslim on the government-required identity card negatively affects her youngest son. "[I]f I send him to school . . . the school will list him as a Muslim. I do not want the school to force him to learn Islam," she says.
The ERLC premiered the nine-minute video – “Malaysia: A Fight for Freedom and Identity” (see below) – during a July 26 Capitol Hill discussion of religious liberty in Southeast Asia. The Southern Baptist entity co-hosted the conversation as a side event on the third and final day of the State Department’s first-ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington.
Malaysia’s constitution protects religious freedom, and the society has been historically pluralistic. The population is about 60 percent Muslim, however, and the government requirement that all identity cards include the designation of a person’s religion has produced severe restrictions for non-Muslims in some cases.
Some Christians – who constitute about 10 percent of Malaysia’s population – and other religious adherents have been registered as Muslims because of forced conversions, marriage arrangements or clerical mistakes, according to the ERLC. Registration as a Muslim, even mistakenly, bars a person from marrying a non-Muslim, forces children to attend Islamic schools and bans conversion to another faith.
The ERLC’s Travis Wussow, who traveled to Malaysia last fall to meet with government officials and affected Christians, told Baptist Press, “Religious freedom is not an American idea; religious freedom is a fundamental right bestowed to every person made in the image of God by their Creator. Every person possesses this right, regardless of whether or not a government recognizes such.
“Baptists have always recognized the dangers when the government oversteps its bounds, especially in matters of faith and conscience,” said Wussow, the ERLC’s general counsel and vice president for public policy. “My hope with this documentary is that it connects that conviction to Malaysia, awakening many to both the peril and the promise concerning religious freedom there.”
In the documentary, Malaysians explain how the religious registration policy has affected their families. Their real names are not used for security reasons.
An unnamed mother says in the video, “I went to apply for my identity card. Suddenly, Islam appeared on it. I asked for the removal of the word ‘Islam’ as I said I am not a Muslim. I am a Christian. But he said, ‘How is it that you are a Christian? Because in the computer your parents are Muslims,’ he said.”
Her youngest son’s birth certificate has “Islam” on it because that is the religion on her identity card.
“So it is difficult for me to send him to school, because if I send him to school … the school will list him as a Muslim. I do not want the school to force him to learn Islam,” she says.
“For me, I want religious freedom. I do not want any restrictions from any government authorities. Starting with my identity card, my children and grandchildren have inherited the problem.”
Arissa, a pseudonym, converted from Buddhism to Islam when she married but later became a practicing Buddhist again. She has a Muslim name, however, and is still registered as a Muslim, according to the documentary.
“Because I converted to Islam, it feels like I did not give a proper name to my children,” she says. “They followed my surname. I feel like this has affected my children. They have a father, a surname, but because of me, they are carrying a Muslim’s name.”
An unidentified husband and wife in the documentary have difficulties because his parents are Muslims.
“The word ‘Islam’ stated in my husband’s identity card is due to the marriage of his father to his mother, who was a Muslim,” she says. “His father was originally a Christian. But when they got married, he became a Muslim.
“This is our problem. We have one child and on her birth certificate, the name of her father, my husband, is not included. Because if his name is included, the child will automatically become Muslim.”
The husband says in the documentary, “I hope my identity card problem can be fixed soon, so that I will be able to fix my daughter’s birth certificate. As a father, when I look at my daughter’s birth certificate without my name included, it is a cut to the heart.”
Tan Sri Simon Sipaun, a government official, says in the documentary, “[W]hen the document indicates that you are Muslim, you have a big problem. Theoretically, you can change that, but you have to go to Sharia Court. And from experience and from my own observation, it is next to impossible for the Sharia Court to say you are non-Muslim.”
Under Malaysia’s constitution, Sharia courts have jurisdiction over Muslims in such personal matters as divorce and property disagreements. Religious freedom advocates are working to prevent efforts to expand the authority of Sharia courts.
In the video, Baru Bian, another government official, says state leaders “must be resolute and must be vigilant and must be courageous to make a stand on this.”
The ERLC and the Religious Freedom Institute (RFI) filed a joint letter this year with the United Nations Universal Periodic Review opposing the attempt to extend the reach of Sharia courts in Malaysia. The ERLC also joined with the St. Charles Institute to express concern about forced religious conversions in the country in a report to the U.N. Universal Periodic Review. Two ERLC staff members traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, to deliver those letters, as well as another, and to offer recommendations regarding religious freedom in Malaysia.
At the close of the documentary, the ERLC asks for prayer for Malaysians in light of the recent election of a new political party to lead the government for the first time since the country’s independence in 1957.
“Malaysians, particularly religious minorities, are full of hope and promise for what the new parliament will do,” the ERLC says. “Let us join with them in praying and hoping for a bright future and a ‘Malaysia for all Malaysians.’”
The video may be viewed here. Only two of those who appear in the documentary speak in English, but subtitles are provided regardless of the language spoken.
Joining the ERLC in co-hosting the July 26 discussion of religious freedom in Southeast Asia were RFI and Boat People SOS.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. Reprinted from Baptist Press, baptistpress.com, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.)