Vatican seals diplomatic ties with Malaysia

Pope Benedict XVI and the Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak
Pope Benedict XVI and the Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak

.- The Vatican cemented a diplomatic relationship with Malaysia on Monday, as Christians within the majority Muslim country help push for governmental reform and call for recognition.

On July 18, Pope Benedict met with Prime Minister Najib Bin Abdul Razak in the second-ever meeting between a Pope and a Malaysian head of state.

At Pope Benedict's summer residence in Castel Gandalfo, the two discussed the political and social climate in Asia and the importance of promoting inter-religious dialogue. They also reached an agreement on establishing a formal relationship between the Vatican and Malaysia, which was one of fewer than 20 countries that do not have official ties with the Holy See.

While Malaysian Christians have played a role in recent demonstrations calling for electoral reform, they also have concerns about persecution and religious discrimination. Catholics and other Christians account for only 10 percent of the country's population of 28 million. Additionally, Islam is both the state religion and the faith with the largest number of adherents in the country. 

In March of this year, Malaysian officials agreed to release 35,000 Bibles that were seized over a heated dispute on non-Muslims being allowed to use the word “Allah” for God.

The decision on March 15 by the government was considered a significant move to quell frustration among Malaysian Christians, as a court case continues on whether non-Muslims have the constitutional right to use the word.

The Herald – Malaysia's sole Catholic publication – was prosecuted in 2010 by the Malaysian Home Ministry and threatened with the loss of its printing license for its use of “Allah” in describing the Christian God in its Malay-language section.

The Herald argued that use of the term follows a centuries-old tradition within the Arabic language that pre-dates Islam, while the Home Ministry claimed that its usage outside the Muslim context was an affront to Muslims.

Last June the Malaysian High Court suspended a ruling that would have allowed The Herald to use the word “Allah” in a non-Muslim context. The decision came after an appeal was made by prosecutors trying to overturn the ruling.

Although the court had initially approval of the paper's usage of the word in January, hundreds of Muslim youth protested, and The Herald's website was hacked several times.

Extremist groups in Malaysia also attacked and desecrated places of worship of several religions to provoke a reaction at the time. Vandals targeted 11 churches, a Sikh temple, a mosque and two Muslim prayer rooms in January 2010.

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