KUALA LUMPUR, March 26 — When 3,000 Christians turned up for a prayer rally in Kuching this week it sent ripples running through Petrajaya, where gleaming structures house the Sarawak state government that is facing elections next month.
In a Christian-majority state where there has been little in the way of religious tension, the prayer rally was an unusual event.
It was a protest against the establishment which Christians have associated themselves with in the state.
The unhappiness with the Barisan Nasional (BN) government is palpable among Christians all over the country. But for it to be become so apparent in Sarawak is worrying BN politicians even in Putrajaya.
Through conversations with ordinary Christians, church officials and Christian Barisan Nasional supporters, a consensus emerged that though the dispute gnawed at their hearts, it would not tilt election results.
The prayer rally on March 23 has challenged that conclusion.
The 3,000-strong public rally is rare for the Christian community. Its leaders, compared to that of other religious communities, are usually adverse to controversy.
Its organisers and attendees were even slammed by Deputy Federal Minister Joseph Salang Gandum who urged Christians “not to make fools of themselves” over the stamping of Bibles.
A Sarawak Barisan Nasional activist who requested anonymity, maintains that the dispute does not resonate among ordinary Christians. That it is more of an issue among church leaders than the majority.
For those who attended the rally, it was more than just about stamped bibles. It was the collective expression of a community that feels its rights as guaranteed by the Constitution, are being taken away.
Pastor Jeff Wei, one of the rally’s organisers, stressed that it was a non-partisan affair. The preachers who addressed the crowd in Bahasa Malaysia, Iban, English and Mandarin did not press them to vote for any particular party.
“Each pastor was given a particular topic to speak on and we all prayed to God to help resolve these problems,” said Wei who was confident that the crowd included both BN and Pakatan Rakyat supporters.
The recurring theme was that the Christian community’s right to worship and spread their faith was being steadily eroded.
It wasn’t just the recent Al-Kitab issue that weighed upon attendees. It was also about the church-burnings of last year and the Government’s insistence that the term Allah be reserved for Muslims.
It was also about the strictures against worshipping in the national language, Bahasa Malaysia, a practice in Sarawak ever since Christianity arrived at its shores.
One attendee described it as a collective stand against the small and gradual slights against the community that have occurred over the years.
“Christians have never spoken out before even on issues that affect us. We have been patient and tolerant for a long time.”
But the tipping point came when the Home Ministry detained about 30,000 copies of Al Kitab in Kuching.
“Being in Sarawak Christians never really felt the tension that is usually felt between religions like in the Peninsula. Even during the Allah issue. But when the Bibles were seized in Kuching we really felt it,” said another man, 44 who attended the rally.
The dispute that emerged from the seized Bibles punctured a certain exceptionalism felt by the Sarawakian Christian community based on its relatively harmonious relationship with the state’s Muslims.
For instance, Sarawakian Christians continue to use the term Allah in their prayers in defiance of pressure by Peninsula-based Muslim groups for them to stop. Sarawakian Muslims apparently have no problems with this centuries-old practice.
Though it is still felt in Sarawak, the Allah issue is by-and-large considered a “Semenanjung-created problem” being fought over by conservative Semenanjung Muslims.
But when bibles in Sarawak and meant for Sarawak were seized by a Semenanjung-originating authority, it was as if a foreign power had invaded and started imposing alien values.
“It’s as if our right to practice our faith was being repressed,” said the 44-year-old.
Pending assemblywoman Violet Yong Wui Wui feels the BN is being willfully ignorant of the message that the rally was sending — that it’s sign that Sarawak Christians are beginning to speak out against a perceived injustice.
“It has come to a point where they cannot just sit quiet anymore. They want something to be done. They want the government to uphold their freedom to practice their faith.”
An actual groundswell of sentiment may be building in the community. Wei, of the Sarawak Ministers Fellowship, says the organisers have received requests to hold more of such rallies through-out Sarawak.
He admits that there is a political dimension to the rally given that it’s set against the backdrop of the state elections.
“Our call is to anyone in power, whether it is BN or Pakatan, to uphold our right to practice as stated in the Constitution. Our message is that Christians must choose wisely and elect people who are justice-minded.”
As with the rally, it is hard for politicians or church leaders to gauge how far-reaching the discontent will be on the elections.
A Catholic state government officer told The Malaysian Insider that though he is incensed by the Home Ministry’s handling of the bibles, he is unsure whether it will be the prime mover behind his vote.
“You have to look all things not just the issue. You have to look at the party and your area’s candidate.”
But what is sure that the sentiments which fuel this ground swell are only beginning in Sarawak. It is quite possible other prayer rallies will be held beyond the shores of Sarawak and in time for the federal elections.