By Celine Fernandez
Christians in Malaysia say government authorities are continuing to make it difficult for them to visit Jerusalem despite lifting a freeze on their visits to Israel in 2011.
Malaysia doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Israel and has long prohibited its passport holders from going there. But it used to allow exemptions for Christians with minimal fuss if they traveled with tour agencies organizing religious pilgrimages; the agencies would then apply with the Malaysian immigration department and could typically receive the clearances within two or three weeks. Pilgrims did not have to go as a church group.
Matters started to get more complicated in January 2009, when Malaysia imposed a freeze on Christians taking pilgrimages to Israel because of security concerns amid ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflicts. Although the freeze was lifted in April 2011, Christians wishing to make a pilgrimage must now do so through their respective churches only, religious leaders say, with churches asked to write to Malaysia’s Ministry of Home Affairs for permission. That process takes between two to three months, people involved in organizing such trips say. If a letter of permission is granted, it can take an additional one to two weeks for immigration officials to handle the necessary paperwork.
Authorities are also imposing quotas on the number of pilgrims allowed to go, trip organizers say. Before 2009, there was no limit to the number of people who could go, with some groups as large as 40 people making the pilgrimage, but now the limit is 20 people per group, with each church only allowed to send one group per year. In recent months, at least one church planning a trip was told by the government that its trip would exceed the quota, an organizer said, though the trip was later approved.
Malaysia’s home ministry said in response to questions from the Wall Street Journal’s Southeast Asia Real Time that it imposed the quota of 20 people in part to ease burdens on group leaders in handling their groups as the places they are visiting are still considered to pose security risks.
That doesn’t sit well with Christian leaders, though.
“We are not going to accept any impediments put before us. So if they say quota, we are not going to accept that,” said Reverend Hermen Shastri, the general secretary of the Council of Churches of Malaysia (CCM), an ecumenical fellowship of churches and Christian organizations in Malaysia.
The Christian Federation of Malaysia, meanwhile, is unhappy that Christians are now being allowed to visit Jerusalem for a maximum of seven days only; many Christians would like to have more time. Before 2009, pilgrims could visit for up to two weeks. But authorities say that seven days is more than enough to visit the whole of Jerusalem, a place considered a holy land for Muslims, Christians and Jews.
Reverend Shastri said that during meetings between government officials and Christian leaders, government officials stuck to the line that the country has no diplomatic relations with Israel as the reason for imposing conditions.
Malaysian authorities dispute the notion that the rules are unreasonable.
“We are not making it difficult for them to go to Jerusalem to do their pilgrimage. I don’t see (the conditions) as difficult,” said Wan Muhammad Rumaizi Wan Hussin, principal secretary of the Security and Public Order Davison in the Ministry of Home Affairs.
Tour agencies aren’t complaining. Indeed, some say it is better for business because now many of the details about who is going, and whether the trips have enough travelers to pay the costs, are handled by the churches. All the tour agencies have to do is just organize visits to places.
Even so, many Christians continue to bristle at all the rules. Another area of complaint is the work they have to do to prove they are Christians in the eyes of the government and inform authorities in advance of their plans. Tour agents say that prior to 2009, the process mainly involved issuing a covering letter saying the pilgrims on their trips were Christians. The letter was given to Malaysia’s immigration department together with the pilgrims’ passports and itineraries. Now, churches that are organizing trips have to give the same documents to the Ministry of Home Affairs and instead of a letter, they have to prove the pilgrims are Christians by producing either their birth certificates or church membership.
Christians are happy to oblige with most of the requirements but feel there is no need for the government to know what they do during the pilgrimage, where they pray, and where they stay.
Either way, Malaysian authorities are “always the shifting goal posts,” Reverend Shastri said.
Christians make up slightly less than 10% of Malaysia’s 28 million people, with Muslims making up the majority of the rest. Although they have largely lived in harmony, tensions have grown in recent years, especially after three churches were attacked in 2010 after a Malaysian court ruled Christians could use the word Allah in a local publication called The Herald, a Catholic newspaper.
In another incident, Muslim worshippers found severed pigs’ heads in two mosques. Last year, Muslim groups organized rallies accusing Christians of proselytizing to Muslims – a charge Christians deny.
Malaysian authorities have taken some steps in recent years to reach out to Christians. Last year, for instance, Malaysia and the Vatican established diplomatic relations when Prime Minister Najib Razak visited the Pope.