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Cross protest raises fresh concerns of religious intolerance in Malaysia

Protests over a church display of a cross have raised fresh concerns on religious tolerance in Malaysia. 

KUALA LUMPUR: A group of about 50 Muslims protested against the hanging of a cross on Sunday (Apr 19) outside a church in Kuala Lumpur. The protesters in Taman Medan, a Muslim-majority suburb, said they feared the cross would cause confusion among residents.

The church removed the cross and peace was restored. But the affair has left a sour taste, particularly as it comes in the wake of a string of similar incidents.

"We have to be concerned,” said Saifuddin Abdullah, CEO, Global Movement of Moderates. “First you have the issue over the use of “Allah” by Christians; then there was the seizing of bibles; and then you had a group of people complaining about a Hindu temple in Putrajaya; and now you have people protesting in front of a church because of a cross symbol.”

He added: “Even though these are isolated incidences - and I’d like to believe they’re all not related to each other - if you look at the big picture, this is not what Islam is about. Secondly, this goes against what the constitution says."

Mr Saifuddin’s organisation was started by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak to seek understanding among communities. He believes the authorities need to help mediate a just resolution to the problem.

The Inspector General of Police (IGP) however, has cleared demonstrators of any wrongdoing - including one of the key figures there, his elder brother, Abdullah Abu Bakar

"The IGP should actually free himself from the case because there is a clear conflict of interest,” said Mr Saifuddin. “It doesn't matter if his brother was the leader or a negotiator. The fact was his brother was involved, and he should take a leave of absence from this case and allow the Home Minister to appoint someone else."

Questions over the legality of the Taman Medan church were also raised. But the Opposition-led state of Selangor has indicated it will support the church's right to exist.

"The town planning approval falls under the state and so long as the state does not succumb to pressure by this very small group, I don’t think it's going to have any problems with the state authorities,” said Rafizi Ramli, PKR secretary-general.

In a statement released by the Prime Minister's Office, Mr Najib said he had ordered the police to investigate the actions of the protesters and, if there is any wrongdoing on their part, will take action under the Sedition Act. He also urged tolerance of different faiths and respect of the law. 

He added that the protesters should have brought their grievances to the relevant authority, in this case the Selangor State Council, which can give approval for the premises to be used as a place of worship - instead of demonstrating to the extent of generating uneasiness among different racial groups.  

Meanwhile, some Malaysians have taken to social media to make light of the idea of a cross confusing their beliefs. The postings include shared photos of hidden crosses seen in everyday situations, including a tweet showing an image of Kuala Lumpur International Airport.