In a decision indigenous Christians in eastern Malaysia have found incomprehensible, their government in Kuala Lumpur - which considers itself one of Asia's more successful democracies - has banned the Bible in their native tongue.
The Iban, the largest of 27 indigenous ethnic groups in Sarawak province on Borneo island, have since 1988 had access to the entire Bible in their own language, published by the Bible Society of Malaysia.
But now the mainly Muslim government's Home Ministry has named the Iban-language Bible as one of 35 publications it is banning because they are considered "detrimental to public peace."
Among the other books listed are Christian books in Bahasa Malaysia and Bahasa Indonesia, the national languages of those two countries.
They include translations of books in English by well-known Western evangelical authors J.I. Packer and John Stott. Others are books on Islamic subjects.
The books were listed in a ministry statement that cited various publication laws and said the "printing, import, production, reproduction, sale, circulation, distribution and possession of books listed under the schedule are banned in the country."
Anyone found guilty of breaching the ban faces up to three years in jail, fines of up to $5,200 or both.
About 9 percent of Malaysia's 23 million people are Christians, and most live in the east of the country. Iban is spoken by more than 400,000 people, members of a Borneo tribe that was once feared for its head-hunting.
Many have converted to Christianity, while some still practice traditional religious rituals.
Islam is Malaysia's official religion, although the federal constitution guarantees the right of all citizens to profess, practice and propagate their religion.
That freedom is subject to another clause saying that laws "may control or restrict the propagation of any religious doctrine or belief among persons professing the religion of Islam."
Critics say this provision provides the authorities with a loophole, for example by identifying publications they can claim cause confusion among Muslims.
With the approach of Easter, an umbrella group called the Association of Churches in Sarawak issued a statement saying Christians in the province could not understand why their Bible has been banned.
"To find Bup Kudus [the Iban-language Bible] banned now has caused confusion, fear, anxiety and alarm among the Christian community in Sarawak," said the group, which comprises Catholic, Anglican, Methodist and others churches.
"Without the Iban Bible, we cannot conduct the church services," said the association's chairman, Pastor Lawrence Banyie.
'Muslims may be confused'
A local paper quoted a senior official in the ministry's "publications control" division, Elias Mat Rabi, as saying the banned books breached guidelines for religious books.
They used several terms that were also used in Islam, which could confuse people, he said.
Reached by phone in the Sarawak capital, Kuching, on Thursday, Elias declined to comment, or to explain how the Bible and other books were considered dangerous.
The secretary-general of the Malaysia National Evangelical Christian Fellowship, the Rev. Wong Kim Kong, said from Kuala Lumpur there had for some time been difficulties over the fact that some words used in Islam were also used in Christian publications.
Some Muslim leaders thought this could perplex Muslims who picked up such books.
Among the words that cause concern is "Allah." It's the word Muslims use for the deity they worship, but the Arabic word pre-dated Islam and is also used by Christian Arabs when referring to God - despite the considerable differences in the Judeo-Christian and Islamic conceptions of God.
The Iban translation of the Bible uses the term "Allah Taala" for God, while the other banned Christian books, in Bahasa Malaysia and Bahasa Indonesia, also use "Allah" for God.
This is thought likely to be one of the problem areas for the Home Ministry.
Kong said it was wrong for a specific religion to claim monopoly over certain words. "Terminology or language doesn't belong to any particular religion. It is universal property."
If the government was worried some Muslims may be confused, it was the government's responsibility to tackle the problem through educational programs aimed at Muslims - not by banning Christian books, he said.
"In a multi-cultural, multi-religious society like ours, it is important for the government to go through a process of what we call 'natural justice' - it should consult or discuss with the organizations concerned before making a decision affecting them."
Kong and other Christian leaders have scheduled a meeting with a government deputy minister later this month to discuss the ban, he said.
A representative of the Bible Society of Malaysia, Dr. Victor Wong, said Thursday the publishers were flabbergasted at why the government had chosen to ban the Iban translation 15 years after the first edition came out.
The Iban version was now in its eighth edition, and a run of around 5,000 were printed about every five years, he said.
Wong declined to comment further, saying the Society was "watching to see what happens" before taking further action. He noted that a number of Christian bodies had protested the government action.
The Christian community has also won support from the Democratic Action Party (DAP), a secular opposition party, which said the ban should be lifted.
DAP lawmaker Teresa Kok called the ban arbitrary and unjustifiable, and asked the government to "explain why it considers the books to be detrimental to public health."
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