Christians and Muslims met up again in equal numbers, this time at a hotel in Alor Setar, to cement ties of friendship and solidarity, notwithstanding the controversial verdict of the Federal Court which denied the Catholic Church an avenue to appeal on the use of the word Allah in the Herald.
The heart-warming gathering of 40 participants had been scheduled without the Federal Court decision in mind – nor did the organisers anticipate a right wing group’s threat of beheadings (pancung) to those who insult Islam – but it so happened, providentially perhaps, that all these coincided on the same day.
A previous meeting in Penang between Penang Bishop Sebastian Francis and Pas spiritual leader Nik Aziz coincided with a threat by an unknown group to organise a ‘bible-burning fiesta’ at the Butterworth padang earlier that day (the fiesta failed to materialise) – and Nik Aziz’s birthday.
Another dramatic dialogue last year, when participants were chased out of an Indian restaurant in Butterworth – only to return to their original venue, an Anglican church, where they successfully carried on their scheduled dialogue – coincided with the 50th anniversary of the formation of Malaysia.
The Christian side this time was represented by Penang Diocese Bishop Sebastian Francis, St Michael’s Church, Alor Setar parish priests Fr Marshall Fernandez and Fr Mark Michael, St Anne’s Church, Bukit Mertajam parish priest Fr Henry Rajoo, and parishioners from Alor Setar and Sungai Petani.
Bridge-builders Mujahid Yusof Rawa and Abdul Rahman Kasim, along with top Kedah Pas leaders including Mahfuz Omar and Kedah opposition leader Amiruddin Hamzah, led the Muslim side.
Both sides were mindful of the court decision earlier that day though they didn’t dwell on it. Instead they preferred to focus on the ties of friendship and trust built over the last couple of years.
Mujahid told the gathering, “There is always hope when we see the light at the end of the tunnel. And if we don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, then it is our duty to light up the path.”
Certainly, Mujahid himself has been instrumental in lighting candles instead of cursing the darkness. Apart from his efforts at inter-religious dialogue across the nation, he has played a key role in the National Unity Consultative Council, where he chairs the NUCC Working Committee on Law and Policy.
The Committee has come up with three draft Bills, which Mujahid is optimistic about. For the first time, these draft Bills have been widely circulated among the public to provide their feeback:
– A draft National Harmony and Reconciliation Bill, which prohibits religious, ethnic and gender discrimination.
– A draft National Harmony and Reconciliation Commission, which envisages the setting up of a commission to tackle these issues.
Bishop Sebastian’s fellow bishop, Paul Tan, had referred to Mujahid as a modern-day St Francis of Assisi, after the Parit Buntar MP visited Sr Juliana Lim who was lying in a coma in hospital in Seremban following a robbery attack, which resulted in swirling suspicions of something more sinister.
Mujahid himself paid tribute to Sebastian for providing unfailing support in opening the doors of churches in the northern region ever since the Pas National Unity bureau chief led a Pas delegation in 2012 to visit the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in Penang to congratulate the then newly installed Penang bishop.
For his part, Sebastian rejoiced in the ties of friendship already built and fondly recalled his meeting with Nik Aziz, when the latter had offered him words of advice and concern like a fatherly figure.
The bishop said the country needed more visionary leaders who had a strong spiritual foundation.
He noted with gratitude that it was a previous sultan of Kedah who had provided a safe haven for a Christian community, led by two French priests, fleeing from persecution in southern Siam in 1781.
The priests and some of this community later settled in George Town, Penang five years later, becoming pioneers of the Christian community in Penang. One of the two priests, Arnaud-Antoine Garnault, went on to become bishop of the northern region – Sebastian’s forerunner.
“I now come to express my thanks to Kedah for the refuge they provided this Christian community in their time of need,” said Sebastian.
The bishop urged those present to participate in a “jihad” (spiritual struggle) against corruption, injustice and evil all around us.
Emcee Abdul Rahman Kasim expressed incredulity at the Federal Court decision and empathy for the Christian community. At the dinner, he read out a pantun (poem) on unity and peace, a few of the verses flowing as follows.
Kedamaian dan perpaduan yang akan membawa kegembiraan kepada Ahmad, Ah Seng, Gurindra, Mutu dan John bagi membina sifat muhibbah bersama.
Kedamaian dan perpaduan ini akan terasa runtuh jika sekadar menolong kemiskinan si Ali di sawah di Pendang, tetapi membiarkan anak Muniandy kelaparan di estet getah Kuala Ketil.
Kedamaian dan perpaduan ini akan dikira kosong kalau hanya menangis untuk Uztazah Asma yang diragut rantai cedera tetapi tidak mengapa apabila Sister Lim di bunuh di hadapan gereja.
Bukan bermakna kedamaian dan perpaduan kalau asyik berkelahi,
Kedamaian dan perpaduan ini mesti dijaga, dicinta dengan tidak dimusnah oleh anasir … rasis.
The event was organised jointly by Kedah Pas, with the help of Penang Pas, and the St Michael’s Church in Alor Setar. But not everyone in Pas, especially the conservatives, are pleased with the bridge-builders, who have been accused of fostering “liberalism” and “parallelism”.
Later, over drinks at the corridor of a nearby nasi kandar restaurant, I told the persistent Rahman that his team’s effort in organising this event and in ensuring that everyone turned up had been amazing. For instance, Rahman and his daughter had personally wrapped up the over 100 souvenirs (see a few of them below) for the dinner. Another member at the table had personally sponsored the cake which Nik Aziz had presented Sebastian during their ‘summit’ meeting.
To which the burly Rahman smiled genially and said that he felt it was his “obligation” to bring Muslims and Christians together in the quest to foster greater unity – an obligation which he had no doubt embraced as his personal mission in life.
See the full photo gallery here.