But how heavy Al-Kitab will weigh on the Christian minds may be reflected on their ballot papers.
FEATUREPastor Melai Belingau’s voice was low but steely as he reflected on the first religious controversy to crash upon Sarawak shores. But by now his chagrin had moved beyond the stamping of the 30,000 Al-Kitab copies and was levelled at the Christians instead.
“The ordinary Christians are unaffected by this matter because they don’t understand it nor do they seek to understand it,” said the Sidang Injil Borneo pastor. “But as leaders we can’t turn the other cheek because if we compromise today, who knows what will surface tomorrow.”
For now the face of tomorrow is that of the 10th Sarawak state election in April where compromises are bound to be required. Yet religion could come between many such invisible handshakes. And if this happens, it will make history in a state where religious tolerance is a practice rather than a privilege.
Racial and religious tensions are unfamiliar terrain for East Malaysians, and they have watched in close and quiet bewilderment as these tensions crackled in the Peninsula over the past year. Three weeks ago it was their turn to grapple with the fine line between religion and politics.
Tens of thousands of Al-Kitab copies were released after being impounded for almost 18 months at the Kuching Port. Christian joy was fleeting though when the Home Ministry ordered the Malay-language bibles stamped with the words “For Christians Only” and marked with serial numbers.
The Christian leadership in Sarawak swiftly condemned these restrictions but the true weight of the Al-Kitab issue will only be known when Sarawakians go to the polls on April 16. And herein lies the root of Belingau’s private distress.
Christians account for 43% of Sarawak’s 2.4 million population. A united stand against the government’s heavy-handed approach to their religion could well see a massive vote swing favouring the opposition. Yet this may not happen.
“I’m worried about the ignorance in the rural areas,” Belingau confessed. “The Dayaks, in particular, are not well-informed. They only fight once they are victimised but the critical time is now.”
He will therefore be heartened to learn that Dayak social activist, Dr John Brian Anthony, has more faith in his community.
Anthony pointed out that the Sibu by-election last May revolved around the “Allah” issue and despite Barisan Nasional’s (BN) generous offers to fund the refurbishments of churches in Sabah, it wounded up losing the seat.
“The Al-Kitab issue has made Sarawak churches very angry,” he stated. “The Dayaks take religion very seriously and this recent issue has made them more inclined to support the opposition.”
“For the Dayaks this is the last straw after being marginalised in the civil service and losing their land. The parts are starting to fall into place to create a picture of a colonised Sarawak.”
Anthony, who helms the blog Dayak Baru, claimed that BN support has steadily decreased among the 95% of Dayaks in his village of Kemena. A mark of this change, he observed, lay in the shifting stance of the longhouse heads.
“They are always known to be fence-sitters but lately they have hinted at their support for the opposition,” he said. “The young educated Dayaks have been pressuring them for the past six years to look in a different direction and they are finally doing it.”
“In this past year, religion has taken root in politics with PKR functions in non-Muslim areas beginning with a prayer. And this is because PKR Sarawak doesn’t have the Muslim brand like it does in Peninsular Malaysia.”
Another social activist, who only wanted to be known as Peng, noted that the startlingly vocal reaction by Christian groups was indication enough of BN’s precarious position in Sarawak.
“Christians in Sawarak are normally conservative and reluctant to rock the government boat,” he explained. “But the Al-Kitab issue has prompted strong statements from the community’s top leadership. I don’t remember them ever publicly taking the government to task over an issue.”
Peng also warned of the political clout among the indigenous people particularly that of the Kelabits. Despite being a minority tribe, they possess strong political influence and good government connections (being former and current civil servants).
“The most obvious flexing of these political muscles are the statements made by (Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department) Idris Jala supporting the release of the Al-Kitab,” Peng pointed out. “Jala is a Kelabit himself and the tribe is using him as a link to the federal government.”
But Belingau is far from encouraged by John and Peng’s words. He still believes that the wool must be snatched from over the eyes of Christians in rural areas.“They see voting the opposition as biting the hand that feeds them,” he said. “But what they don’t see is that the hand is intentionally keeping them hungry so that they will always be grateful to be fed.”
Belingau has thus opted for a more daring approach – he now laces his sermons in church with a dash of political flavour.
“I tell my congregation that the way this country is run has a direct impact on their lives,” he said. “First was the Allah issue and now this. Before long the government will be deciding what we should and shouldn’t believe in.”
“The problem is the separation between theology and politics. Politics is seen as a dirty word when it is actually something that people should understand because it involves them. And because of this separation, our theology isn’t developed enough for Christians to state their stand on national issues.”
In a move to expedite this understanding in light of the looming polls, Belingau has dispatched evangelists to reach out to Christians in remote areas. His efforts may be applauded by some while others may view it as an overreaction to a non-issue.
Francis Sia, the leader of the Movement for Change Sarawak (MoCS), is among the latter. According to him, religious issues, no matter how controversial, will take a back seat to corruption and abuse of power in Sarawak.
“I have attended various ceramahs and the people are not interested in debating the Al-Kitab issue,” he said. “It will have little bearing on votes and I strongly advise the opposition not to include religion in its campaign because Sarawakians will not appreciate a ruckus over a non-issue.”