ROME – At a time when Pope Francis is under fire on multiple fronts, a Malaysian bishop says he and his fellow prelates came to Rome this week in part to affirm “that we’re happy with the direction he’s taking for the universal Church.”
Bishop Sebastian Francis of Penang, President of the Bishops’ Conference of Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei, acknowledged that his group in Rome this week for their ad limina visit, which bishops are required to make every five years to the Vatican and the pope, knew that not everyone shares their sense of enthusiasm, but said that’s not the primary reason they wanted to express gratitude to Francis.
“It’s a genuine conviction that this is what the Holy Spirit is saying to the Church today, full stop!” he said.
Francis (the bishop, not the pope) also expressed gratitude for a recent supreme court ruling in Malaysia, a majority Muslim nation, requiring both parents of a child to agree in order to register a “conversion” of a child from one religion to another.
“It seems to go along with the federal constitution, which is a secular constitution and it’s supposed to be the paramount constitution of the country. We cannot be running a country with two constitutions side-by-side,” he said, referring to shariah, or Islamic law.
The late January ruling arose from an appeal brought by M. Indira Ghandi after her ex-husband, a Muslim, unilaterally declared their three children Muslims following his own conversion, with a shariah court shortly afterwards awarding him custody of the children. Two of those children remained with Ghandi anyway, but the 11-month-old child was abducted by the father and has not been seen since.
Francis spoke to Crux on Feb. 9, from a residence on the northern outskirts of Rome where he’s staying during the ad limina visit.
On the status of Christians in Malaysia, Francis stressed he does not feel like a “minority.”
“In our case, the so-called ‘minority’ is not insignificant,” he said. “When you lump together all the people of other faiths apart from Islam, it’s quite a big majority. You’re talking about 35 percent or so of the population.”
“I see the word ‘minority’ being used in the official media and even among my own kind,” Francis said, [but] I don’t feel that way. If we were five percent of the population, I could see using the word ‘minority,’ but we’re not.”
Still, the fact that some Christians in Malaysia do feel like second class citizens was clear from Crux’s conversation, which was also joined by Sister Margarete Sta Maria, the executive secretary of the bishops’ conference.
“I think many Christians do [feel that way], many,” she said. “All non-Muslims do, because all the privileges are given to Muslims … jobs, education, are given to them under the quota system in which they have the majority.”
Sister Margarete said that while there’s no outright religious persecution, there’s a form which is “very subtle.”
“Take religious freedom – we can worship, but I can’t speak to a Muslim about Jesus,” she said. “You cannot bring up the subject. It’s an unspoken rule.”
(By the way, she also said Pope Francis was delighted when she accompanied the bishops on their ad limina meeting: “The pope was very happy …he said that it was the first time in the five years of his pontificate that he saw a woman as the secretary of the conference!”)
The following are excerpts from the Crux interview.
Crux: Is this your first ad limina visit with Pope Francis?
Francis: For me it’s the first, yes. He has changed the culture a little bit, so there’s more listening. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t say what he has to say, but whatever he says is after listening to us. The word “listening,” the word “discernment,” is quite profound in his replies. It’s not just the usual rhetoric. When he needs to make a point, about several issues, it’s quite clear and he doesn’t need to use too many words.
What sort of issues came up?
We meet so many dicasteries [Vatican departments] before we meet him, so at the end of the day, whatever we are sharing at the level of the dicasteries and the prefects [department heads], we have discussed quite a bit with the other guys of the political situation and other issues, especially with the Secretary of State and [Archbishop Paul] Gallagher [Secretary for Relations with States].
By the time you reach the pope, you’ve kind of said it all. The conversations with him are more on the direction of the church itself vis-à-vis the world. Also, it’s about the kind of direction and momentum the Church needs to have within itself in order to be a credible witness to the world. That was my general feeling by the time we reached Francis, it was trying to get a sense of direction.
We wanted to show our appreciation for the direction he is giving the Church, and also discussing some little difficult issues here and there … with regards to Amoris Laetitia, for example, but it was very open and a very clear orientation.
How did the discussion go on Amoris Laetitia?
To begin with, we can’t just talk about one particular chapter, which is chapter eight, which was a little bit of a brouhaha for some people. [The reference is to the chapter of Amoris titled “Accompanying, discerning and integrating weakness,” which, among other points, treated Catholics who have divorced and remarried outside the Church.] The point is, he said you must be fair and look at the whole picture, and not just zero in on some particular issues.
I think he was right in saying that you’ve got to get the spirit [of the document] as a whole, and not just a problematic thing that relates to ritual, or sacraments, or things like that.
What did you tell the pope in general about the direction of the Church?
Many of us affirmed to Pope Francis that we’re happy with the direction he’s taking for the universal Church, and we feel that we are in solidarity with him. Our churches are feeling encouraged by it, because we have taken the same direction as he has, I think.
Did you want to do that because you know there are some who aren’t encouraged by Pope Francis?
Yes, but it’s more than that. It’s a genuine conviction that this is what the Holy Spirit is saying to the Church today, full stop!
You mentioned things at a national level [in Malaysia], for instance a recent court decision that both parents’ consent is necessary for a religious conversion of a child to be valid. Did you discuss this, and what’s your take?
I think the decision was a good decision. It seems to go along with the federal constitution, which is a secular constitution and it’s supposed to be the paramount constitution of the country. We cannot be running a country with two constitutions side-by-side. Although there is shariah, there is an Islamic dimension to it all, but strictly speaking that applies to Muslims and not to others.
I also think that woman, Indira Gandhi, was very courageous. Considering the situation in Malaysia, she showed a great amount of wisdom and courage. She said something I thought was very encouraging for all of us, Muslims and non-Muslims.
Right now, by law, she has the right to see the daughter, and the daughter has to listen to her. But she said she’ll listen to the daughter, and if the daughter wishes to continue to be a Muslim and to practice the Islamic religion, she’ll encourage it. That’s tremendous, coming from her.
I thought that was a very, very wise mother and Hindu woman, showing a great amount of not just courage but wisdom too. She’s not just trying to take advantage of the court decision, but trying to think about what’s best for her daughter.
Has the ruling had any repercussions in the Christian community?
We actually work very closely with the leadership of all the major religions. We meet very often, and an issue like this has been discussed not only in the Hindu community but among a wide range of religious leadership that includes Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Sikhs and Taoists. We are very strong … it’s a nationally registered body, so when we speak, we don’t speak just as Christians, we speak as one. Of course, the Muslims are not there, for reasons known to them, but we speak with one voice and we take a stand together.
In this case, it’s not just a Hindu issue. It’s equally also our concern and our issue.
Are you looking forward to the March 22 decision on the use of ‘Allah’ in Christian Bibles?
As far as the Catholic case is concerned, it went up to the Supreme Court, what we called the ‘Federal Court,’ and it can’t go any higher. The case is settled, it’s over, it’s finished. The decision is very clear … the non-usage of that term, or that word, is only for one publication, full stop. It’s the Catholic Herald [a publication of three dioceses on peninsular Malaysia] … there you cannot use that word, but it does not apply to any other situation of the usage of that word, in worship, in catechetics, in formation, in community life …
Is it in your Bible right now in the Malaysian language?
It’s in the Bible.
Do you use it in Sunday Mass?
Yes, but internally. We don’t use it outside of our churches. It’s a kind of discretion, but none of us have stopped using the word. I think they [Muslims] understand that too.
The new cases you’re talking about aren’t directly linked to this. They’re new cases coming, interestingly, from east Malaysia, Borneo and Sabah/Sarawak, and there was a particular ruling of the court that in some ways does not apply [to other situations]. The cases come from Evangelical churches.
You’re a minority in Malaysia. How does that work out?
Often they use the word ‘minority’ in relation to non-Muslims in the country. But in our case, the so-called ‘minority’ is not insignificant. When you lump together all the people of other faiths apart from Islam, it’s quite a big majority. You’re talking about 35 percent or so of the population. The word ‘minority’ is used for Taoists, or Buddhists, or Christians, or Sikhs, or whatever, but all together, it’s significant.
Do you personally think of yourself as a minority?
I don’t feel that way. Though I see the word ‘minority’ being used in the official media and even among my own kind, I don’t feel that way. If we were five percent of the population, I could see using the word ‘minority,’ but we’re not. We are about 35 percent, the whole lot put together.
As the government keeps telling us, ‘Look around you, there’s so much religious expression’ beyond the Muslim world.
Do you agree with that?
At least externally, it looks like that. There are many temples, many you name it … Buddhists, Taoists, Hindus, Sikhs, as well as churches. We can build churches – there’s a bit of a struggle to get the permits and permissions, but it goes through at some point with a little bit of patience and endurance. Officially, many use the word ‘minority,’ but I don’t feel we’re a minority.
To speak for peninsular Malaysia, we have the sense that we’re a very inclusive church. We pray not just for ourselves and our own rights and privileges, but for all. That comes up quite evidently in our daily prayer, and in how we relate to God and God’s people.
Do you feel the Muslim community is also inclusive?
I think they’re struggling with that. There are pockets who reach out to us, and we reach out to them. Of course, for them politics and religion are all intertwined and interrelated, so it’s kind of a scale about how you feel about it. On national issues, we have to relate to them and they have to relate with us. We meet each other from time to time. I don’t feel isolated from there, or them from me.
Now, there’s a two-party system in Malaysia, and in a way that makes it all more open because they have to compete as well. There’s more participation among the people in terms of politics and the direction the country should take. There is more participation from the grassroots. People are more aware of their need to engage in the politics of the nation.
If there were a free and fair election without any constitutional prohibition, could a Christian be elected president? Would the ordinary Muslim be open to that?
Probably not, because the rights of a particular religion are enshrined, and the others just seem to accept it as a way of life.
Do you feel like second class citizens?
Francis: Maybe many do, but I don’t.
Sister Margarete: I think many Christians do, many. All non-Muslims do, because all the privileges are given to Muslims … jobs, education, are given to them under the quota system in which they have the majority.
Francis: Theoretically, those so-called privileges are given to the ‘sons and daughters of the soil.’ As far as that definition is concerned, if you want to be legal about it, it also refers to those who are Christians.
But does it actually work that way?
Sister Margarete: No.
Your perception is that the deck is stacked?
Sister Margarete: Yes. So many non-Muslims, those who can afford it, they leave the country for education and so on. Many don’t come back. Many go to Australia … they used to go to the U.K. but Australia is closer. But in general, you wouldn’t say that Malaysians are suffering, because economically we’re better off than some neighboring countries.
The Church doesn’t suffer outright persecution?
Sister Margarete: It’s very subtle. Take religious freedom – we can worship, but I can’t speak to a Muslim about Jesus. You cannot bring up the subject. It’s an unspoken rule.
Francis: We had a peninsular Malaysia pastoral convention for our churches, and we took a resolution that our churches for the next ten years were going to be creative, inclusive, and bridge-building. When that gets into your system, those three words, it doesn’t matter how other people think or feel, whoever is creating more divisions. We as church are thinking and feeling and praying that way, and therefore I feel less threatened.