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Challenges of Christianity in Sarawak

  • Islamic councils from Kuala Lumpur often interfere excessively in the activities of other religions, especially on the issue of conversion and the use of "Allah" in Malay language Bible.

By Wong Meng Lei

In the 2010 census, Christians (including the Catholics) made up about 42% of Sarawak's population.

Based on this percentage, there could be some 1.18 million Christians out of the state's total population of 2.8 million in 2019. And based on the trend of different denominations, about half are Catholics, meaning 590,000 of Catholics and 590,000 of Protestants.

Nearly 80% of Christians in Sarawak are the indigenous people, with only about 20% Chinese. As such, there are about 940,000 indigenous Christians and about 240,000 Chinese Christians.

Sarawak was ruled by the White Rajahs for almost a century prior to the establishment of the Federation of Malaysia, during which four major Christian denominations, namely Anglicanism, Catholicism, Methodism and the Borneo Evangelical Church set up their presence in the Land of the Hornbills.

1. Anglicanism

In 1848, the Church of England sent the first party of missionaries to Sarawak. Pastor Francis Thomas McDougall and two other missionaries set up the Anglican Church of Borneo, preaching to the local Chinese first before focusing on evangelizing the indigenous people. There are currently some 180,000 Anglicans in the state.

2. Catholicism

In 1881, the Catholic Mill Hill Mission was set up in Kuching, preaching mainly to people in Kanowit and Sibu along the Rejang River. Targeting mainly the indigenous people along the Rejang with also a significant following among the urban Chinese, the Catholic Church now boasts approximately 590,000 devotees in Sarawak.

3. Methodism

Between 1901 and 1902, some 1,000 Foochow migrants under the leadership of Wong Nai Siong arrived in Sibu. A Foochow settlement was established along with the Methodist church which initially targeted the Chinese migrants before turning to the Ibans in 1939. There are about 180,000 Methodists in the state today.

4. Borneo Evangelical Church

The Borneo Evangelical Church or Sidang Injil Borneo, SIB, was started by three Australian missionaries in 1928 in the interiors of northern Sarawak, targeting mainly the indigenous people. It later set up a Chinese church in Limbang in 1958, and then in Kuching, Sibu, Sarikei, Bintulu and Miri in the 1980s. The church currently has a following of 180,000.

In addition to the above, there are also other denominations in Sarawak, including the Baptist Church, Good News Fellowship, Full Gospel Church, Miri Gospel Chapel, etc. which were all established in the 1960s after the formation of Malaysia.

The Federal Constitution provides that every person has the right to profess and to practice his or her religion and, subject to applicable laws, to propagate it.

For so long the Church's efforts in education, medical care and moral guidance for the local community have been beneficial to the people. However, the Church has since come under tremendous challenges due to political reasons after the establishment of Malaysia.

On September 16, 1963, Sarawak along with North Borneo (Sabah), Singapore and the 11 states on the Malay peninsula formed the new nation of Malaysia. Sarawak has since the 1970s become one of the nation's 13 states, making it justifiable for federal intervention, of which the impact on the local indigenous people has been the most direct, including a vote of no confidence against chief minister Stephen Kalong Ningkan (from the state's largest Iban community). The federal government declared a state of emergency in Sarawak, giving the governor the power to remove the chief minister.

According to a collection of theses from a workshop held at the National University of Singapore on September 27, 2013 in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the formation of Malaysia, former Sarawak chief minister Abdul Rahman Ya'kub was responsible for the implementation of the "Islam first" policy and the CM post reserved for a specific ethnic group in the state. Abdul Rahman introduced a series of Islamist policies, and the state, following the footsteps of Sabah (1973), made Islam its official religion in 1981.

"Islam first" means "Malay first", and if the indigenous people of East Malaysia are converted to Islam, they will become "Malays". Additionally, relevant Islamic councils from Kuala Lumpur often interfere excessively in the activities of other religions, especially on the issue of conversion and the use of "Allah" in Malay language Bible. And such interference has caused a lot of concerns to the state's Christians. To avoid using words specific to Islam, SIB reverted to its English name of Borneo Evangelical Mission.

Since Sarawak joined the Federation 56 years ago, statistics show that there has been the most significant growth in Islam conversion among the Ibans, from 415 in 1960 to about 30,000 in 2009, and the trend continues.

May 9, 2018, the first ever change of federal administration since the country's independence was seen by many as a victory of the people. Tun Mahathir became the prime minister for a second time. He was a vessel chosen by the people, but he was not their first choice reformer, as many believed he would take the country back to the old road of racism and religionism.

Anyway, the current circumstances offer a good start for reform, including taking the 1MDB case to the court and fighting corruption, etc. However, many other things have yet to be addressed, such as the sovereignty of East Malaysian states and recognition of UEC. To the people, a complete reform is yet to be achieved.

The Church had always been concerned about the political developments in the country, but is itself above politics. It nevertheless encourages Christians to directly take part in politics.

During every general election, the Association of Churches in Sarawak would launch a series of prayer meetings for the election, and the leaders of chuches would write pastoral letters or articles in church publications on Christians and politics. Even after the election, the Church would continue to pray for the nation. Besides a free atmosphere to evangelize, it also prays for greater smoothness in church building, printing of the Bible and visa application for foreign students at the seminary. Such a large group of Christians can wield remarkable influences in nation-building.

(Wong Meng Lei is The Chinese Methodist Message Editor In Chief.)


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