Sabah churches press for religious freedom as Malaysia debates giving more power to region

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Churches in the state of Sabah, east Malaysia, have requested complete religious freedom in the Muslim-majority country as the nation considers devolving powers to the region, which is located off mainland peninsular Malaysia on the north-east of the island of Borneo.

The Sabah Council of Churches (SCC) wrote in March to the committee responsible for reviewing Sabah’s status in the Malaysian federation, calling on it to guarantee “complete religious freedom”.

While the SCC letter welcomed the creation of the committee, it voiced concern that discussion was concentrated on financial autonomy and rights to natural reserves of oil and gas. Complete religious freedom, they argued, is “one of the fundamental pillars of MA63 (the Malaysia Agreement 1963)”.

“Without the guarantee of complete religious freedom, there would not have been a Malaysia,” they added.

The letter also called for the removal of religion from national ID cards.

In 1963, Singapore and the North Borneo regions of Sarawak and Sabah joined the already independent state of Malaya to create the modern nation of Malaysia. The British government’s assumption at that time was that the addition of these two states with their large Christian populations would “balance out” the Muslim ethnic Malay majority of peninsular Malaysia. However, Singapore’s departure from the federation in 1965 tipped the balance back towards the Malays.

The Malaysia Agreement of 1963, which created this union, included provisions on freedom of religion. One requirement was a two-thirds majority to pass any law in North Borneo that restricted Christian missionary work among Muslims. However, this requirement was later repealed.

Singapore’s secession from Malaysia in 1965 dramatically changed the religious and ethnic balance of the nation, leaving Christians in the minority. Since then the government has increasingly Islamised the nation which has affected banking systems, educational curricula, corporate decisions and race relations. In 2015 Malaysia became the first country in the world to introduce a Syariah (sharia) index to measure how closely the country’s laws align with sharia. Many Christians feel as if the spirit of the 1963 Malaysia Agreement has not been upheld.