On a day when a threat of Bible-burning by unknown bigots fizzled out, Pas spiritual leader Nik Aziz hosted a friendly private meeting with Catholic Bishop Sebastian Francis.
It may have been Nik Aziz’s 82nd birthday on Sunday, but it was the octogenarian who handed over a cake to the Bishop of the Penang Diocese, which covers Penang, Kedah, Perlis, Perak and Kelantan. On the cake was inscribed the simple words: Kpd: Yg Mulia Bishop, Daripada: Tn Guru Dato Nik Aziz, Mursyidul Am Pas.
Though Nik Aziz had a full schedule in Penang, he cancelled another appointment to make sure he could meet Sebastian at short notice. Looking frail, the Tok Guru said he now finds it difficult to stand air-conditioning and even rain. But sunshine is always welcome, he said, his face brightening up.
Though Tok Guru tires easily – he has a pacemaker – his aides say he perks up when the occasion demands such as when addressing a large ceramah. And on this occasion, he was clearly looking forward to meeting the Bishop.
Nik Aziz touched on the importance of kerohanian (spirituality) – which Sebastian wholeheartedly agreed to – and lamented the excessive emphasis on materialism in development models today.
The Tok Guru pointed out that Islam honours the prophets, including Jesus. In Kelantan, he was pleased to add, there were many images of Buddha.
Bishop Sebastian expressed concern about Tok Guru’s health and said he would pray for him: “The nation needs your spiritual example,” he said.
Tok Guru expressed regret that certain people had created a controversy over religious matters. Bishop Sebastian concurred saying that that wasted energy could be better spent looking for missing children, for instance.
Later, when posing for a group photo, Nik Aziz joked, “I don’t know what the mainstream media is going to say about my meeting with you!”
The closed-door meeting was held on an auspicious day for the Pas spiritual leader for several reasons: It was his birthday; it was the first time he had witnessed a Thaipusam celebration in Penang (en route to meeting Karpal at his residence). He also received news that he is now a great-grandfather twice over – newborn twins. (He has 10 children and 52 grandchildren – that’s a lot of birthdays to keep track of!)
Earlier, he had laid the foundation stone for a minaret at a mosque in Batu Uban, which was built around 1710 (according to Mujahid), well before Francis Light set foot in Penang in 1786.
And it was the first time he was meeting Bishop Sebastian. When told that the Penang Diocese includes Kelantan, Nik Aziz immediately invited Sebastian to drop by at his residence in the East Coast state.
After about 30 minutes, Nik Aziz appeared to tire and he requested Mujahid to take his place to deliver a khutbah (sermon) at a surau after the meeting. (After resting, he made a brief 15-minute appearance at a ceramah later in the night.)
The meeting with the Bishop was held at Nik Aziz’s suite in a hotel in Penang. Also present in the Pas team were Parit Buntar MP Mujahid Yusof Rawa and Tasik Gelugor Pas information chief Abdul Rahman Kasim, both of whom had just returned from a dialogue at Fatima Church in Kangar, as well as close aides of Tok Guru.
Bishop Sebastian was accompanied by Sister Marie Jeanne of the Little Sisters of the Poor and Arokiadass, newly appointed to take charge of inter-religious dialogue in the Penang Diocese.
This quiet and dignified encounter was the perfect riposte to the bigots who are trying to divide and rule the people and divert attention from the real issues of the day.