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Malaysian court ruling favors Christians over local authority
A Malaysian high court ruled recently in favor of a group of Christians in Johor, stating that the 2005 demolition of their Christian chapel was illegal and ordering local authorities to pay restitution.
The Straits People, a small tribe in southern Johor state, filed the case after local officials tore down their newly-built chapel 10 days before Christmas in 2005, saying that it had been built on state land, the Vatican Radio reported.
However the High Court said in its decision that local authorities had trespassed, and did not honor a 2001 pledge, which listed the area where the church had stood as customary native land. A yet undetermined amount will be paid to some 51 Christian villagers, the Canadian Press said.
Atty. Steven Thiru told the Canadian Press, “They (Christian villagers) are elated because they feel they have been cheated. This is a victory for their freedom of religion and for their land rights.”
The tribe people of Malaysia have indigenous customs including the belief that land where they have lived on for decades belongs to them. Malaysia has 18 ethnic tribes of the Orang Asli (Original People). Malaysian laws do not recognize their customs, the Canadian Press reported.
The Orang Asli has a total population of 140,000 and comprise less than one percent of the country’s population. They are among the poorest people in Malaysia. Many of them have converted to Christianity, the Canadian Press said.
The Straits People is one Orang Asli tribe. The ruling on their behalf came after a landmark settlement last May in a 15-year court case where another Orang Asli tribe, the Temuans, was awarded a $2.1 million in a ruling that said their ancestral land was forcibly taken from them by highway authorities, according to the Canadian Press.
Fr Lawrence Andrew, editor of Herald told the Vatican Radio, “This (rights of religious minorities) is a very complex problem. The government has rewritten history. They are trying to say that this land – from the very beginning – has been populated by Muslims. Which, of course, today more and more people are beginning to see through historical artifacts and so on this is not true.”
For example, Andrew cited a 2,000 year old village that had been discovered in the south which appeared to have been a Buddhist kingdom – but the government buried the village, Vatican Radio reported.
In a separate development, last week local officials ordered another Orang Asli Christian community in Kelantan to stop building a church. There is the possibility the church may be demolished, Catholic Culture said.
A Christian group headed by Pastor Moses Soo is helping the tribe in the construction of the church. Soo told the Canadian Press that villagers are defying the order to cease construction.
“They are still building it. They feel it is their right to their use of land and their right to practice their religion,” Soo told the Canadian Press. “The church will be ready by the end of October.”
The majority faith in Malaysia is Islam (60 percent) followed by Buddhism (19 percent), Protestantism (six percent), Hinduism (six percent) and Catholicism (three percent), Catholic Culture said.