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Malaysia urged to punish paper over religion rumor

Malaysia's government reprimanded the country's top Malay-language newspaper over an article alleging a Christian plot to supplant Islam as the official religion.

Opposition and ruling party politicians called Friday for sterner action including suspending Utusan Malaysia or its editor for stoking ethnic and religious tensions.

Allegations by two political bloggers about a conspiracy by church leaders received little attention until Utusan reported it on its front page last Saturday under the headline "Malaysia a Christian nation?"

Christian leaders slammed the accusation as a lie intended to create suspicion between ethnic Malay Muslims and religious minorities. Several Muslim groups have filed police complaints demanding investigation into what they consider a threat to the position of Islam.

The Home Ministry on Thursday issued a letter of warning to Utusan, owned by Prime Minister Najib Razak's Malay ruling party, for publishing news "alarming to the public" but didn't censure the newspaper or its editors.

Chua Soi Lek, who heads the Malaysian Chinese Association, the second largest party in the ruling coalition, said a mere warning letter was insufficient and called for Utusan's editor to be suspended and action taken against the two bloggers if the report was indeed false.

"We hope that the government will not compromise and should uphold justice and send the message to Malaysians that religion should not be used in the political battle," Chua said.

Opposition lawmaker Teresa Kok urged the government to revoke Utusan's publication license to show its commitment to stem ethnic and religious provocation as the country marked the 42nd anniversary of deadly ethnic riots on Friday. At least 200 people died in the May 13, 1969, riots that erupted amid tension between ethnic Malays and minority Chinese.

Utusan legal adviser Mohamad Jeffery Daman said the newspaper would await the results of a police investigation but declined to say if it stands by the report.

A string of religious disputes in recent years, often involving minority complaints of discrimination, has triggered persistent feelings of insecurity among both Muslim Malays and minorities about their religious rights in a country that prides itself on multiethnic peace.

Tensions surged briefly last January when 11 churches suffered firebomb attacks and vandalism amid anger among some Muslims over a court verdict allowing minorities to use "Allah" as a translation for God. Some Muslims say the use of "Allah" in Christian literature could be used to convert Muslims, who comprise nearly two-thirds of the population.

The Utusan report said dozens of pastors were believed to have prayed at a recent meeting with opposition leaders to install a Christian prime minister who will make Christianity the official religion. Christian groups say they held a meeting to honor some Christian pastors and discuss regular religious issues, not politics.

Christians comprises about 10 percent of Malaysia's 28 million people. Most of Malaysia's Christians are ethnic Chinese while most Muslims are of Malay ethnicity.

The warning to Utusan followed Najib's meetings with Muslim and church leaders. He has said Christian leaders respected Islam's position and pledged to work toward harmony.