Malays, who make up slightly more than half of Malaysia’s population, are 99 percent Muslim. Daniel*, who was born in Malaysia, though not to a Malay family, has a burden to share Christ with his Muslim countrymen; he gives us a window into the hidden persecution of Malay Christians.
To be Malay is to be Muslim. “Malays who leave Islam basically lose everything,” Daniel explains. “They’re refugees in their own country and are treated as outcast. [Accepting Christ] is seen as one of the greatest sins that a Malaysian Muslim can do.”
If a Muslim person is caught leaving Islam, Daniel says they are sent to an Islamic re-education center deep in the jungle- one with barbed wires. Though they are sometimes referred to “retreat centers,” Daniel points out the obvious: “you don’t have barbed wires on retreat centers.” While he says there have been no reported deaths, people have been severely beaten in these retreat centers. “Persecution is around, though it’s hidden very well.”
“Generic advertisements-with all those nice smiling Malaysians-tell you Malaysia is a beautiful and peaceful land,” he says. “This is our culture. If we are upset with you or if there is a conflict between us, we’ll still smile at you. We might poison you the next day, but we’ll still smile at you. We like to hide things. That’s why for a long time, people did not know of the persecution that was taking place in our country-because it was all hidden and underground.”
Malay Christians often live in isolation, even from other Christians in Malaysia. “The Islam that is practiced in Malaysia is very unique; we are of the Hanafi school [Sunni Islam], but it is very much a cultural adaptation of Islam where everything revolves around the family,” Daniel explains. When you leave Islam, you leave your family ties. The biblical picture would be for the church to become their families, but the severe consequences of being caught with Malay church members have produced a reluctance among church members to admit Malay believers into their midst.
“Was it difficult for you to leave Islam?” Daniel asked a Malay brother. “No, because I didn’t really leave anything,” he replied. “I gained everything. The only thing that was tough for me when I left Islam was that the church closed its door on me. It has happened in several churches that when a Malay walks in the usher says, ‘No, you cannot come in.’ This is very upsetting to me because nobody should be segregated from hearing the gospel. Christians do these things out of fear, to protect themselves.”
Clearly the Malaysian church struggles with the challenges of being Christians in an overwhelmingly Islamic environment. Though Malaysia is not a true Islamic state and all races can technically freely practice their faith, some changes troubling changes are occurring. “There are more than 30 Islamic words we cannot use anymore, and at least nine of them are found in our local language Bibles,” Daniel explains. “Also, there are certain areas in which we cannot build our churches. If there is a mosque in a five kilometer radius, no churches may be built. A lot of different rules make sure that Christianity doesn’t grow.”
Non-Malay Christians normally attend Tamil, English or Mandarin speaking churches. Daniel says that “Most churches in West Malaysia do not use the local language, Bahasa Malaysia. The language, however, is primarily used by Malays in East Malaysia’s rural settings, where two-thirds of the Malay Christian population lives.” Though their knowledge of the local language, this gives indigenous Malay Christians a unique opportunity to reach Muslims in Malay communities. Daniel reports that in spite of this opportunity they seldom share the gospel with non-believers. Daniel believes that this is because of the hardships that they are forced to endure because of the preferential treatment given to Muslim.
While Christ uses many means to draw people to Himself, these human relationships are critical. “There are many testimonies of people coming to faith through dreams and visions,” Daniel says. “But God only gives them a dream and vision that is partial. It’s never the full story. Why? Because He designed it such a way that the church would finish the job.
“In spite of all the hurts and prejudice, I encourage the church of Malaysia to go out of its way to begin to befriend Malays and gain their trust. The minute you engage Malays and live with them, they open up to you. When I ask most Malays, ‘How did you become a Christian?’ they say, ‘My colleague at work’ or ‘My classmate at school.’ Muslims are amazed that we get to talk to our God so freely and that He talks back to us. To them that is one of the most astounding things. My greatest prayer is that the church would engage the Malays.”
Father, today we lift up the Malay people that You would draw them to Yourself. We pray that You would strengthen and encourage the small number of Malay Christians, sustaining them in their hardship, being present with them in their isolation, and driving out their fear with Your peace. Raise up godly men to lead the Malay church and establish a strong infrastructure, that Malay Christians would know where they might be welcomed to worship. Fill their lives to overflowing with the joy of Your grace and mercy toward them, so that their hearts would be softened toward the many Malay also in need of the grace and mercy of the gospel. We pray that You would speak to Malays in dreams and visions, connecting them with Christians who can share the Bible, and the good news of the gospel with them. We pray for an outpouring of Your Spirit upon the Malay people of Malaysia. In the name of Jesus who loves His church with an everlasting love, Amen.
*Names and other information has been changed for security reasons.