KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Malaysian customs officials seized 32 Bibles from a traveler, a church federation said Monday, adding its voice to a raft of complaints that the Muslim-majority country is becoming less tolerant of other religions.
The Royal Malaysian Customs department, however, said it was only trying to determine if the Bibles were imported for commercial purposes.
Custom officials at an airport in Kuala Lumpur took the Bibles from a Malaysian woman Jan. 28 on her return from the Philippines, according to the Rev. Hermen Shastri, general secretary of the Council of Churches of Malaysia. She was carrying the Bibles for a study group, he said.
The woman was told that all religious materials had to be sent to the Internal Security Ministry's publications control unit for clearance, Shastri said, adding that he had never before heard of anyone being told to do this when bringing English-language Bibles into the country.
"It's getting from bad to worse," Shastri told The Associated Press. "This either points to a concerted effort to undermine the current practice of religious tolerance, or the religious enforcement authorities have been given a free hand and they are having a field day."
About 60 percent of Malaysia's 27 million people are Muslim Malays, who have generally lived peacefully with Christians, Buddhists and Hindus in the minority Chinese and Indians communities.
However, the minorities have become increasingly worried that their constitutionally guaranteed right to worship is being gradually eroded. In a recent case that undermined minority confidence, the government banned the word "Allah" from Malay-language Bibles and other Christian publications, saying the word can only be used by Muslims.
Indians have also been enraged that their Hindu temples have been demolished by state authorities. Many legal disputes involving Muslims and non-Muslims have been ruled in favor of Muslims.
There is no evidence that Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is encouraging the rise of Islamic tendencies in the country, and some critics have suggested it is the handiwork of overzealous Muslims in positions of authority.
However, Abdullah has been criticized for not reining in the Islamization process, which is threatening to tear the carefully nurtured racial peace in this multiethnic society.
In a statement, the Council of Churches called on Abdullah to publicly reassure Christians of their rights, and urged authorities to release the Bibles and issue a formal apology.
Customs department spokesman Iskandar Jaafar denied the Bibles were confiscated because of religious intolerance.
"It's the normal procedure" to check if so many books were being imported for commercial purposes, Jaafar said, adding that the Bibles had been sent to the Internal Security Ministry for vetting.