Activating The Christian Vote

Christian churches and groups which have traditionally steered clear of politics have now begun to take a more active role in educating and disseminating information to voters.

Besides the ceramah and roadshows that the election campaign has thrown up, dialogues organised by various churches have sprung up as well.

Many churches are inviting candidates and academicians to debate and discuss national issues, in addition to issuing guidelines to the congregation on how to vote.

Last week, the St Francis Xavier Catholic church, not for the first time, hosted a debate between candidates contesting in the PJS parliamentary constituency - MCA's Donald Lim and PKR's Hee Loy Sian - as well as Gerakan Lim Thuan Seng and DAP's Edward Lee, who are standing in the Bukit Gasing state seat.

The Council of Churches of Malaysia (CCM) had human rights lawyer Malik Imtiaz and academician Dr Farish Noor at a dialogue with church-goers yesterday.

Explaining why, CCM general secretary Rev Dr Hermen Shastri said: "In view of the many issues related to corruption, the state of judiciary and freedom of religion, many churches located in urban areas are keen on engaging with candidates as to their stand on those issues."

And what are the issues closest to the heart of churches?

"Those relating to the state of mission schools, the hassle regarding permits for places for worship, inadequate burial grounds and permits to run social service centres are issues that come up all the time when dealing with local authorities and government agencies," he said.

However, these are small matters compared to the confiscation of Bibles and prohibition of the use of certain words in Christian publications, he said.

"All of these impinge upon the religious freedom provided in the Federal Constitution. And they will certainly be a factor in the hearts and minds of Christians when they go to vote," said Dr Hermen.

Is this trend here to stay?

A Catholic church insider said:

"Hopefully! Christians are more politically conscious now and have the courage to respond. And it's about time that they realise they have a duty and be responsible for the problems in the country. As citizens, they have a moral duty to ensure the right candidates (based on their social beliefs) are voted. That is the proper way to fulfill their duty to the country."

Questions for Christians

Malaysian Christians have much to ponder, from questions on religious freedom (Lina Joy and Revathi Massosai) to parental rights in the conversion of their children (R Subashini and S Shamala), to the religious status and estate of the deceased (Nyonya Tahir and N Moorthy).

Recent incidents involving the seizure of Christian English bibles by a Customs officer at the LCCT and confiscation of Sidang Injil Borneo's Bahasa Malaysia Christian materials for Sunday school have also touched a raw nerve within the normally sanguine church fraternity.

Other incidents involving the demolition of Hindu temples in Selangor for the purposes of development have not helped either. Muslim NGOs have called for the creation of a committee comprising their and local council representatives to decide the fate of a non-Muslim place of worship in a Muslim-majority area.

Christian newsletter ‘Herald’ was threatened with revocation of its publishing permit, but the authorities backed off subsequently by imposing a condition that the words Allah, Baitullah, Kaaba and Solat should not appear in the Bahasa Malaysia section.

This, Christians argue, not only represents a limitation on their right to use Bahasa Malaysia but also to words that are Arabic in origin that have been used by everyone in Malaysia and Middles East for centuries.

For the 2.8 million Christians in the country, a vote for opposition is not a sign of rebellion against the government of the day, but a reflection of their disenchantment with the way it has tackled or ignored religious issues.

But deciding on which candidate to choose was no easier for one church-goer after the two-hour dialogue at CCM.

At the end of the talk, a man in his 70s agonised aloud: “In past elections my choice was simpler. It was between development and backwardness. But this year, I've been having sleepless nights thinking about the candidates. Who should I vote for, Dr Farish?"

Replied the amused historian:

“Look at the candidate, not the party. See if he supports race-based politics, the setting up of an Inter-Faith Council, or if the person is asking for the Malaysia to be an Islamic state. Once you do that, you'll know who to vote for."

Churches are taking the same message to their flocks.

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