Missing plane unites Malaysians, douses flames of religious strife -- at least for now

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The imam cupped his palms before his face and invited the congregation to pray. "Oh Allah, return to us those who are lost. Oh, Allah, grant safe passage to MH370," he declaimed in English.

The prayer was not unusual. The setting was.

Gathered in the courtyard of a shopping mall, the Muslim religious leader was followed by a Christian reading from the Bible, then a Buddhist monk, a Hindu and finally a Taoist priest echoing the imam's pleas before hundreds of worshippers in a largely Muslim country where religious intolerance has been on the rise.

The baffling mystery over the disappearance of the Malaysian Airlines jetliner with 239 people on March 8 has united Malaysia, a rainbow nations of numerous ethnicities, as never before in recent memory.

Tuesday night's inter-faith ceremony would have been inconceivable 11 days ago in this country of 28 million people where religious differences and bigotry have often been on open display. For Malaysians the sight of non-Muslims bowing respectfully as Imam Hilman Nordin said the prayers from the rostrum was an incredible step toward unity. While there have been interfaith prayers before, they have always been without a Muslim representative.

Muslims have been at loggerheads with Christians and Hindus in recent years, and some sermons last month identified Christians and Jews as enemies of Islam. Hardliner Muslims have called for the burning of Bibles and in January firebombs were thrown into a church compound. A few years ago, a group of hard-line Muslims stomped on the severed head of a cow outside a Hindu temple. Cow is sacred to Hindus.

"In the shared sadness of loss, the tragedy has revealed and reinforced a strong sense of community," said Bridget Welsh, a political scientist from Singapore Management University. "If anything this is a silver lining of the tragedy."

Some of the enmity rises from the right of non-Muslims to use the word "Allah." The government and hardliners say "Allah" -- the Arabic word for God -- is exclusive to Malay Muslims, who account for about 60 percent of the population. The Catholic Church has challenged this assertion in an ongoing court case which many Muslims see as a threat to the dominance of Islam. Most indigenous tribes in Borneo are Christians, and speak only the Malay language in which the word for God is Allah.

The case remains unresolved in court and religious tension continues to fester.

In January this year, Islamic authorities seized more than 300 Malay-language Bibles from the office of a Christian group because they used the word Allah.

This row over a single word has blackened the country's image for religious tolerance and hardened the long-standing sense of alienation among ethnic and religious minorities who feel discriminated by decades of affirmative action policies the benefit Malay Muslims in business, jobs and education. Malays — almost exclusively Muslim — are about 70 percent of the population. Chinese, who are Buddhists, Christians and Taoists, are 21 percent and Indians, who are Hindus, Sikhs and Christians, are about 7 percent.

But such differences have been set aside -- at least temporarily -- following the disappearance of the plane after taking off from Kuala Lumpur for Beijing on March 8.  A massive sea and air hunt by 26 nations continues.

Thousands of Malaysians of all ethnic backgrounds were also touched by the tweets of Maira Elizabeth Nari, daughter of the chief steward aboard the stricken plane.

"It has been more than 100 hours. Where are you?" she wrote in one tweet. And one of her 40,000 followers encouraged her: "Keep on praying, pray to Allah."

At the inter-faith vigil at the Curve in the Kuala Lumpur suburb of Damansara Perdana, leaders of several religious groups went on stage to offer their prayers. Many in the crowd wore white t-shirts with the words "Unite for MH370" and held white balloons with hand written messages of hope in ink.

"Today is a rare occasion for us to bring unity, peace and harmony," said a Buddhist monk before chanting a prayer for the plane's safety.

Video messages from people all over paying tributes to the passengers were played on a large screen. Many people hugged each other and listened to a heartwarming version of Michael Jackson's "You Are Not Alone."

"Please come back home. We are all in tears waiting for you brothers and sisters," said Shantha Venugopal, the Hindu representative. The Taoist priest beseeched God for divine intervention while the Sikh leader pleaded for a closure to the plane's disappearance.

Teh Su They, whose Global Peace Foundation co-organized the gathering with local singer Reshmonu, a Hindu, said the tragedy showed that "deep inside the heart of every Malaysian, we care for one another, that we are one family. In this difficult time we need to come closer to support each other."

In a statement, Reshmonu said "For one night, we forget our divisions and stand united for... faith, compassion and love."

"Because of this tragedy, we stand as one and respect one another's religion. I see this as Allah's wisdom behind this tragedy to reunite all Malaysians," said Nurul Arfarina Nasir, a 28-year-old housewife wearing a headscarf and holding a white balloon.