News of Christians being given the boot in Muslim countries tends to override stories of remarkable opportunity, overshadowed instead by Muslim religion and politics.
Malaysia, an elongated land mass fingering down from the Indo-China peninsula to the city state of Singapore, is a complex grouping of peoples and religions: Malay 70%, Indian 5%, Indigenous peoples 5%, Chinese 20%. Like Indonesia it is predominantly Muslim, so much so that the government makes popular its assumption that to be ethnic Malay one is automatically Muslim and if Muslim then Malay. Fixed in its statutes are regulations that make it unlawful to evangelize a Malay, and if a Malay chooses to convert, there is a protocol through which they must go to complete their conversion. The risks are so great that churches if holding an event outside of their church building must alert anyone reading that the event is a Christian event.
We were startled by the news on January 2010 that an Assemblies of God church had been burned to the ground. A breaking point in the struggle for Christians to operate with freedom, the catastrophe was turned to opportunity. Pastor Ong Sek Leang led me through the build up to what ended in his church lying in ashes.
Historically there has been conflict with the use of “Allah” by Christians in their Bible translation. The government ruled that “Allah” was only to be used by Muslims and their holy books. Christians objected, saying that they had used that name for years in their Malay translation. It went to court and on December 31, 2009 the high court ruled that it was permissible for Christians to use the name.
Riots broke out following the ruling. A flame fanned by government objection became real. On January 8, 2010 his church was broken into and seven Molotov cocktails thrown in. Before anything could be done the church was destroyed.
It was here disaster became opportunity.
Pastor Leang when asked by a television reporter for his response said, “We forgive.” And followed it up, noting they would not press charges. Within days the leader of the opposition, a Muslim, toured the burned-out site. Following him the prime minister too a Muslim, visited.
While this was going on, the church had built another sanctuary some distance away. Even though completed they still didn’t have their permit. The prime minister learning of that, the day he visited the burned down church, signed their permit authorizing the other church, which was now ready for occupancy.
Political chatter soon included notations on issues with, “Well, we should be like the Christians and forgive.”
The government did appeal the December 31, 2009 court decision on allowing Christians to use “Allah.” It will be heard September 10, 2013.
Across town, the center hosting the World Pentecostal Conference was more than I ever expected. Turning the corner, I asked the taxi driver, “Are you sure this is Calvary Church?” “Well they call it a conference center but it really is a church,” he added with a smile.
This you have to see to believe. Here in a country known for opposition to Christian faith, long a stronghold of Islamic tradition and faith sits a most spectacular church.
Planted in 1968, Calvary Church decided to redesign and rebuild on their then current site. In reviewing their application for permit with the neighbors, they learned that given the problem of car parking a new site might work even better.
Their care in consulting with town planners paid off. They too agreed another site would suit everyone, plus they even had one in mind, a five-acre site zoned for intuitional use. If they would build a “conference center” permits would be made available.
I sat in its moment of dedication as pastor Yongi Cho from Seoul South Korea preached. While spiritual life is never measured by architecture, size or accomplishment, as part of this moment of dedication, I saw the brilliant logic in its construct. As creative, functional, large and hugely people-friendly, this center will serve the wider community, building bridges to a society for whom the Gospel message is foreign if not threatening.
Built at a cost of US$75 million with over six hundred thousand square feet, it is almost debt free with most contributions coming from Malaysia. Few dollars, I was told, came from off shore.
Here in a country, which in its recent past was a receiving country of people and funds, today its missionary vision and expertise has changed from hands-taking to feet-going.
I’m amazed by the spread of Christian faith as Christ’s servants refuse to be intimidated by opposition, instead turning them to opportunities.
Brian C. Stiller
World Evangelical Alliance