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RELIGION: Malaysia Remembers Pope As Defender of Palestinian Rights

Anil Netto

PENANG, Malaysia, Apr 5 2005 (IPS) - Tributes for the late Pope John Paul II in this Muslim-majority nation have cut across the political and religious spectrum. Many have recalled the pontiff’s opposition to the invasion of Iraq, his defence of Palestinian rights and openness to inter- religious dialogue.

At the same time, there is also reflection in certain local Catholic circles that the church in developing nations has to play a more prominent role in defending the rights of the poor and speak out against human rights violations.

Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi led the way in paying tribute to John Paul II who died late Saturday aged 84.

”His message of religious tolerance, dialogue and reconciliation has contributed significantly in promoting better understanding between Christians and believers of other religions,” said the premier.

Malaysia, a multi-religious nation where just over half the population is Muslim, is the current chair of the Non-Aligned Movement and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference.

Former premier Mahathir Mohamad also had glowing words for the late pontiff. “He (John Paul II) supported the Palestinians and condemned their victimisation. He also wanted to see a settlement to the West Asian conflict and opposed the occupation of Iraq,” he said.

Mahathir, who was known for his scathing criticism of the United States and the West, added that the pope was an effective and influential voice, especially in applying pressure on whatever that was done by the superpowers. ”It was a voice that could lessen the strain being brought about now by the major powers.”

Although no pope has ever set foot on Malaysian shores, Mahathir became the first Malaysian premier to visit the Vatican on Jun. 7, 2002. At the Vatican, the Malaysian premier had a 10- minute private conversation with the pontiff. Fifteen days later, a tearful Mahathir, who faced severe criticism at home for his authoritarian rule during which corruption and abuse of power flourished, stunned Malaysians, when he announced on ‘live’ television that he was stepping down after 22 years in power.

On the other side of the political divide, Mahathir’s former deputy-turned-leading critic, Anwar Ibrahim, described the pope as a voice of humanity and compassionate defender of human dignity. A former Islamic youth leader before he entered politics, Anwar is now regarded in some circles as a ‘moderate Muslim’ who could play a role in bridging the Islamic world and the West.

He noted that the pope had inspired the marginalised and oppressed and ”courageously and unambiguously blessed the struggles for justice, liberation and human rights”. He added that John Paul II had strived hard to bridge the gap that divides different faiths on Earth. ”Therefore not surprisingly his death is mourned by peoples of all nationalities and faiths, including many Muslims.”

Nik Aziz Nik Mat, the spiritual advisor to the conservative Islamic Party, PAS, added an unexpected tribute to the pontiff, describing his demise as an obvious loss. ”Religious people are those who try to connect the ‘sky’ (the spiritual) to the ‘earth’ (worldly concerns) as opposed to ‘free-thinkers’ who are only concerned with life in this world. Whoever replaces Pope John Paul II must be someone who is able to connect the sky to the earth.”

Nik Aziz said he had been awed by the pope’s courage and tenacity when he was alive, especially in opposing the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

John Paul II had strongly opposed George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 and sharply criticized Bush senior’s earlier Desert Storm invasion of Iraq in 1991. Although the pontiff established diplomatic relations with Israel, he later criticized it for building a massive wall encircling and slicing through Palestinian territories in the West Bank, saying the Middle East ”does not need walls but bridges.”

He also supported the Palestinians’ right to self-determination, visiting the Palestinian refugee camp of Dahisha during a visit to the Holy Land. In Damacus in 2001, he became the first pope to enter a mosque in a highly symbolic gesture. These developments did not go unnoticed in the Muslim world and, some say, diffused talk of a ‘clash of civilisations’.

Meanwhile, some local Catholics concerned about social issues are reflecting on the church’s approach in expressing its ‘preferential option for the poor’ and hope that the next pope will build on what John Paul II and others had begun.

Last month, a group of Catholics here organised a special Mass to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the assassination of the Archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero, who was shot dead on Mar. 24, 1980 after his stirring defence of the poor and victims of oppression under a military dictatorship.

The Mass in Penang was celebrated by the state’s Bishop, Anthony Selvanayagam, who paid tribute to Romero and criticised the ‘culture of silence’ in society today. The process to beatify Romero, the first step to sainthood, is already underway.

Asia already has the example of Mother Teresa, who worked among the poorest of the poor in Kolkata and who has been fast-tracked along the path to sainthood after her death. But some Catholics feel more is needed than just soup kitchens and old folks homes if the church is to live up to its professed ‘preferential option for the poor’ in Asia today.

As Asia’s developing countries succumb to neo-liberal globalisation, which John Paul II has criticised, the chasm between the rich and the poor is widening in many countries. Some countries have resorted to repressive laws to keep the masses in check as the poor try to articulate their grievances and protest.

”The church needs to follow the example of Romero to be more vocal and to denounce the root injustices that contribute or cause poverty,” said Martin Jalleh, a popular church facilitator. ”In fact this is what John Paul II did too.”

Jalleh said this option for the poor has to go beyond annual church campaigns held before Easter to raise funds for work among the poor.

”Society in Asia needs to hear a loud and clear voice from the church in Asia – a voice that does not hesitate to speak out against ‘institutionalised sin’,” he told IPS. ”May the church’s “preferential option for the poor” be given renewed emphasis by the new pope and may such an option be lived with the same boldness and breath of Oscar Romero.”

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