A dramatic Malaysia Day in Butterworth that had a happy ending. Despite two police reports lodged against them and having to switch venues twice, including suffering the indignity of being thrown out of a restaurant, participants of a Muslim-Christian interfaith dialogue yesterday refused to give up.
Instead they finally held their Malaysia Day interfaith dialogue at the St Mark’s Anglican Church in Butterworth – their original choice of venue – last night.
The dialogue was organised by Tasik Gelugor Pas information chief Abdul Rahman Kasim and Parit Buntar MP Mujahid Yusof Rawa of Pas and Reverend Canon John Kennady Samuel representing the St Mark’s Church.
But a police report was lodged in Penang Island on Saturday by someone from a small group said to be representing ‘Muka Buku’ which also staged a little protest there. Another police report was believed to have been lodged in Butterworth on Sunday, along with a similar small protest.
When Rev John Kennady heard of these protests, he and his church felt it best to switch to an alternative venue to avoid any unpleasant scenes at the church – a decision the police were believed to have been pleased with. (Incidentally, it was John who had received a threatening note in his mailbox some time ago, warning of a possible bible-burning fiesta at the Butterworth padang, not far away from the church – an event that failed to materialise.)
The new venue for the event, scheduled for 9.00pm to 11.00pm, was Saravanan Restaurant along Jalan Kampung Benggali, just a short distance from the Butterworth Police Station. Arrangements were made for a dinner and discussion for about 30 participants. When he heard about the new venue, Mujahid was not happy: he had been looking forward to having the dialogue at the church.
Outside the restaurant, the police presence was building up, with a mobile police station parked discreetly in a side lane opposite the restaurant. Journalists and plainclothes police began milling on the road outside the restaurant and then filed into the dining area on the first floor of the Indian restaurant. About 30 members of the church were in attendance along with 20 journalists and plainclothes police. Meanwhile, about 5-10 Muslims believed to be the group that was unhappy with the event also turned up.
Mujahid, Abdul Rahman and John Kennady took their seats at a table on the right of the long room while facing them were several tables of diners. I carried Rahman’s “Selamat Hari Malaysia ke-50” cake, which had two little Malaysian flags affixed to it, and placed it on the table where the three were seated.
Just as the event was about to start, a petite woman, who identified herself as the owner of the restaurant, walked in. She confronted Rev John and accused him of cheating the restaurant by not revealing the real nature of the event. She said the restaurant was only told to provide food for 30 people, and now there were more people (many of whom were unexpected journalists and the police).
John and Rahman tried to reason with her that they had informed the restaurant to provide food and that there would be some discussion. (Rahman told me later that they had earlier agreed with the restaurant that food for 30 should be provided and would be paid for, and if the turnout exceeded that, the organisers were willing to pay for the additional participants.)
But the owner was having none of it. “I give you 30 minutes to leave.”
Faced with that unexpected ultimatum, the organisers and participants decided to leave immediately.
Once again, I had to carry the Malaysia Day cake. Some of the cream from the cake smudged my fingers. I licked the sweet cream off my fingers – mmm, not bad – and wished the owner and others “Happy Malaysia Day!” with some irony before leaving the restaurant.
Now, John had to make a quick decision whether to go ahead with the forum or cancel it. The police officer he was in touch with was advising him to call it off to avoid any untoward incident.
But the good reverend decided to press on and hold the dialogue at the original venue, his church.
Muhajid and Rahman were thrilled. “This is the most appropriate place to hold the dialogue,” Mujahid later told the crowd inside the church hall.
Rahman drove me back to the church in his car while I clutched the precious Malaysia Day cake he had brought for the occasion. Some brown cream from the cake had sweetened one of the flags in the process.
At the church grounds, Mujahid was holding animated discussions with a couple of police officers. “I am here as an MP to participate in a dialogue inside and your job is to take care of the security outside and protect the sanctity of this church – just as you would protect the sanctity of a mosque or a temple.”
Seeing Mujahid and John’s determination to press on with the dialogue, the officers graciously relented.
Inside the small hall at one end of the church building, about a hundred Christians, Muslims, journalists, cameramen, and plainclothes police packed the room. Even the group of about 10 disgruntled people trooped into the room while others looked at them with some apprehension.
But as they entered the room, Mujahid’s assistant had a quiet word with them. “You say you are Muslims, then behave like good Muslims and respect this place of worship. The people here are watching you.”
By then several plainclothes police personnel were already in the hall including North Seberang Prai Deputy OCPD Supt Mohd Shukri Awang seated in the front row of the audience to ensure security.
Mujahid and John sliced the tension in the air by finally jointly cutting the “Selamat Hari Malaysia” cake, as Rahman looked on. Rahman then distributed some gifts from Pas – boxes of toothpaste and toothbrushes “to help you smile at one another”. Each spoke about the importance of dialogue, and the event flowed smoothly without further interruption.
When the session was over, I was called to launch Mujahid’s new book – “Berdialog dengan gereja: sebuah travelog kedamaian” (Dialogue with churches: a peace travelogue). On the back cover of the book were messages from Tok Guru Nik Aziz and Bishop Sebastian Francis. “Tonight’s events show that the path to dialogue is strewn with obstacles, but it is a path that must be taken to dispel suspicion and promote better understanding,” I said.
Himanshu Bhatt of fz.com asked Mujahid to cite his most memorable moment during his two-year-long series of dialogues at various churches.
Mujahid unhesitatingly replied it was during his first talk at the Holy Spirit Cathedral in Penang at the height of the Allah controversy when he explained Pas’ stand on the issue and was given a standing ovation by the 200 Christians gathered in the hall – a response which inspired him to continue these talks. The other occasion, he said, was of course the dramatic circumstances at St Mark’s Church last night.
During the press conference at the end, Mujahid had to tackle a couple of tough questions posed by mainstream media journalists, on whether he had the authority to hold such talks and to represent Muslims, to which he replied he was an elected MP and could talk to anyone he pleased in the course of forging greater unity.
Meanwhile, the Christian and Muslim participants were elated that their Malaysia Day dialogue, which had threatened to go so badly wrong at one stage, had instead turned out to be a memorable occasion under the most trying of circumstances. They even shook hands and thanked the police officers for keeping the peace on their way out.