Americans Accused of Giving Christian Pamphlets to Muslims

Patrick Goodenough | International Editor | Friday, April 29, 2005

Americans Accused of Giving Christian Pamphlets to Muslims

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - Two Americans have been arrested in Malaysia, accused of handing out Christian pamphlets to Muslims in a country where constitutionally protected religious freedom periodically collides with Islam's stance on apostasy.

A Royal Malaysian Police spokesman said Thursday the two men had been apprehended while handing out pamphlets outside the mosque in Putrajaya, Malaysia's new administrative capital south of Kuala Lumpur.

"There was a complaint by the imam of the masjid [mosque]," he said by phone from Kuala Lumpur. "Acting on the complaint, the Criminal Investigation Department of Putrajaya arrested the two Americans."

At a brief court appearance the pair were remanded in custody for 14 days, giving authoritites time "to facilitate the investigations." They will appear again on May 9.

A U.S. Embassy press officer named the two as Ricky Rupert and Zachary Harris but provided no other details about them.

The police spokesman said the men face charges relating to religion as well as immigration offenses, as they had not been able to produce travel documents when arrested. Their wives had later provided police with their passports, he added

The main complaint falls under section 298(a) of the country's penal code, he said, which prohibits causing "disharmony, disunity, or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will, or prejudicing ... the maintenance of harmony or unity on grounds of religion."

A conviction under the section can carry a 2- to 5-year jail sentence.

The spokesman said officials from the U.S. Embassy had discussed the case with the investigating officer.

Some 60 percent of Malaysia's population are Malay Muslims, while large ethnic-Chinese and Indian minorities practice Christianity and other religions.

Despite being multi-cultural, Sunni Islam is the official religion. Muslims are not permitted to convert to another religion.

"The constitution provides for freedom of religion; however, it recognizes Islam as the country's official religion and the practice of Islamic beliefs other than Sunni Islam is significantly restricted," the State Department says in its most recent report on global religious freedom.

Secular courts have at times ceded jurisdiction to Islamic courts in cases involving religious conversion - even though the individuals involved argued that as non-Muslims they should no longer be subject to shari'a law.

The state's attitude towards religions other than Islam has caused some confusion, most recently when a government minister declared in parliament early this month that the distribution of Bibles in the Malay language was illegal, as it could be construed as trying to spread Christianity to Malay Muslims.

Christian leaders protested, saying the remark was inconsistent with the constitution and with the prime minister's stated policy of promoting religious harmony.

The head of the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship, Wong Kim Kong, said the minister's comments "have caused confusion and anxiety in the Christian community" and urged the government to clarify the matter.

Wong said the policy would especially penalize Malaysian Christians who do not speak English.

Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi then issued a statement saying while there was no ban on Bibles published in Bahasa Malay language, they had to be stamped with the words "Not for Muslims."

Not everyone regarded Abdullah's statement as a concession. One Malaysian participant in an online forum said it was "an insult to Christians to have their Bible stamped 'Not for Muslims' because the message of Christ is for all of humanity, with no exceptions."

The government also has long forbidden the use of some words, such as "Allah," in non-Muslim books, to ensure Muslims do not become confused.

The policy led two years ago to a government decision to ban a Bible published in the language of a small indigenous ethnic group, although the ban was reversed after protests.

See also:
Stung by Outcry, Malaysia Gov't Reverses Bible Ban (May. 01, 2003)

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.