Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak met with Pope Benedict XVI on Monday in what analysts say is an attempt to strengthen ties between Muslim-dominated Malaysia and the country’s Christians. After the recent reports of the firebombing of churches and a string of other disconcerting events, Razak wants to demonstrate the importance of Christianity in Malaysia.
It is thought the diplomatic talks at Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s summer home near Rome, will strengthen Malaysia’s relations with the Vatican. Many Muslim countries have already established relations with the Vatican, such as Iran, Pakistan, and Indonesia.
Current statistics suggest that only nine percent of Malaysians are Christian, and Malaysia still has no diplomatic ties to the Vatican. Commentators have said Razak, Prime Minister since 2009, has pursued changing Malaysia into a more moderate Muslim-majority nation.
In Malaysia, ethnic Malays are automatically considered Muslim. They must request permission from Islamic courts to convert to Christianity, and that is rarely granted.
Although Malaysia’s constitution ensures the freedom to practice any religion, recent disputes have prompted Christians and other religious groups to be concerned about the dominance of Islam, the official religion of the land. There are reportedly 850,000 Catholics in Malaysia, which has a population of 28 million.
Muslim-Christian tensions grew when disputes over whether or not the word Allah for God should be used by Christians; many Malay-language Bibles were detained by authorities.
Also, the firebombing of a set of churches in Malaysia has created unrest among Christians who have long complained of discrimination in the country.
In retaliation to the church fire-bombings, mosques have been vandalized and pig heads have been left at doorways to the prayer halls.
It is hoped that relations between the two faiths will improve through the Malaysian government’s state-level visit to the pope.