COMMENT Roneey anak Rebit was born to Christian parents in 1975.
At the age of eight, his parents became Muslims by secondary conversion; as a result of which Roneey was automatically made a Muslim.
However, the 41-year-old Bidayuh man is today a Christian, faithfully attending a church in Sarawak, but on his identity card, he still carries the Muslim name Azmi bin Mohd Azam.
To reflect his true religious identity, Rooney attempted to apply to the National Registration Department (NRD) to have his identity card corrected. However, the application was rejected by NRD.
When the case was brought before the Kuching High Court, judge Yew Jen Kie ruled in favour of Rooney. However, the joy of the Christian community in Sarawak was shortlived when on April 22, the NRD appealed against the decision.
This has, of course, prompted the churches in Sarawak, especially the bumiputra Christians who make up 40 percent of the population of Sarawak, to issue an emergency joint-statement to express their displeasure with Adenan Satem as a chief minister who is doing nothing to protect the rights of Sarawakians, despite issuing many statements that he would protect Sarawakian way of life.
With this, the Christian leaders in Sarawak are all fired up. “The BN government stands to lose potential support from the Christians in the state,” said one of the Christian leaders. “There is so much talk about the devolution of administrative power back to the state, yet the simple fact that the NRD had highhandedly brushed aside the state Syariah Court’s, Jabatan Agama Islam Sarawak’s and Majlis Agama Islam Sarawak’s support for Rooney to revert his religion to Christianity is hurting the Christian community in the state.”
Another disappointed Christian leader, Chris Jong, for example, posted on social media urging “all non-Muslims to unite and vote against the Barisan Nasional in the coming state election if the BN is not willing to withdraw the appeal before polling day”.
Not just one incident
In the joint-statement by the Christian community in East Malaysia, Christians at large have on a number of occasions expressed grave concern that East Malaysian Christians are “experiencing progressive encroachment on the practice of their faith”.
In at least three other cases, it is obvious that there is encroachment into the personal lives of the Christian community. For example, Sarawakian Jill Ireland Lawrence Bill, a native Christian, had eight of her compact discs confiscated in May 2008, while on transit at the Low Cost Carrier Terminal (LCCT) in at the KL International Airport.
Jill subsequently won the case after six years, when the Court of Appeal ordered the Home Ministry to return the CDs.
In another case, three boxes of Christian educational material from Indonesian publishers destined for Sabah were seized at the LCCT in August 2007. The SIB church, which had imported these children’s teaching material, was told to retreive the materials within 14 days, failing which they would be destroyed.
With the Sarawak state election round the corner, the joint-statement has unfortunately been “blacked out” by most media in Sarawak. Although the joint-statement was issued on April 24, it has not seen the light in any of the state media.
A Sarawakian Christian leader remarked that such a blackout in the local media should never have happened. “It will not be surprising therefore that before long, we Sarawakians will not support our local media; instead, we will turn to online media for the latest political news,” he said, adding that he has observed the same phenomenon in West Malaysia, with the mainstream media.
The joint-statement, which represents the local Christian community, said: “There is a growing anxiety among Christian leaders and their flock that the government through its agencies are putting bureaucratic obstacles in the path of Christians exercising their right to practice, preach and propagate their faith.”
Time for a response
The joint-statement continued: “Given the historical guarantees of complete freedom of religion, the churches in Sarawak lament that the continuing administrative and executive encroachments on the constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of religion.
“The National Registration Department has acted in plain breach of the constitutional and historical guarantees of freedom of religion and made these pre-Malaysia promises empty.
“The time has come for the state to heed these guarantees and to make them real and accessible to every Malaysian, including Rooney anak Rebit alias Azmi bin Mohd Azam.”
When both East Malaysian states joined Malaya in 1963, freedom of religion was enshrined in the preliminary discussions that were held between Sabah, Sarawak and Malaya before Malaysia.
A key condition to Sarawak and Sabah agreeing to the formation of Malaysia was the kind of freedom of religion that existed at the time of the negotiations leading to the formation.
The joint-statement continued: “In a circular the Sarawak Government Paper dated Jan 4, 1962 clearly spelt out and guaranteed that Sarawak had no established religion and it would not be required to accept Islam as its state religion as an assurance given to the people of Sarawak at that time.
“We were apprehensive of the prospect of the dominancy of the Malay-Muslim population and Islamic influence. That position remains unchanged to this day.” For that reason, Islam has never been made a state religion in these two states.
At the same time, the Cobbold Commission had in 1962 stated unambiguously that non-Muslim communities in Sarawak would enjoy complete freedom as to worship, education and propagation.
Restrictions imposed by the NRD on people such Rooney anak Rebit and others are therefore a clear violation of the freedom of religion agreed prior to the formation of Malaysia. Meanwhile, Rooney will continue to practice his religion, although on record, he remains a Muslim.
Therefore, in my opinion, the Christian community in Sarawak have a mandate to respond by casting their votes based on their social conscience. – Malaysiakini
STEPHEN NG is an ordinary citizen with an avid interest in following political developments in the country since 200