Poverty-stricken Christians in the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak are struggling against an avalanche of government-funded tactics to entice native Christian populations to convert to Islam.
For over 20 years, the states’ Christian populations have been protesting about the Islamisation strategies adopted by the government, among them the promise of good education. For poor, subsistence farming families, education that leads to employment is key to ending the cycle of poverty.
The Malaysian government sends Muslims from strongly Islamic parts of the country, such as Kelantan, Terengganu and Kedah on Peninsular Malaysia, to teach children in rural parts of Sabah and Sarawak on Borneo island, where most of the families are non-Muslim. Government agencies also run tadika-taska (Islamic nursery schools) where young Christian children are targeted for proselytization.
Parents of students at SMK Sungei Paoh, a rural school in Sarikei, Sarawak, were outraged after an ustaz (Islamic religious teacher) from Kelantan was appointed head teacher of the mainly Christian Dayak (mainly Christian indigenous peoples on Borneo island) school.
Sarawak’s Land Development Minister Tan Sri James Masing said on Tuesday (10 November) that the Education Ministry had “made error in judgement” by appointing the Islamic religious leader to head the school. He admitted that parents’ fears of forced conversions to Islam were not without foundation given previous cases of forced conversions in Sarawak.
In Miri, Sarawak, Christian 13-year-old Sabrina Ngumbang filed a police report in March against two of her teachers who picked her up from her home and took her to a house in Kuala Baram for a conversion ceremony. They gave her a Muslim name and RM250 (£38; €38; US$57) to buy Muslim prayer clothing.
In October 2014, children in Sarawak boarding schools reported being banned from bringing their Bibles, and boys were being forced to wear a songkok (cap worn by local Muslims).
In February this year, a Dusun (mainly Christian Sabah ethnic group) Christian rubber tapper in Kaidun village in Sabah state was shocked to see his 16-year-old daughter wearing a tudung (headscarf) when he went to pick her up from her hostel to take her home for the weekend.
The hostel’s former warden is suspected to have encouraged the girl’s conversion to Islam by forcing her to recite the shahada, the Islamic creed, which, once spoken, is sufficient to convert to Islam.
“We have three other children studying in the same school and I fear this might happen to them as well,” said the teenager’s mother, Jaina Yassin.
Not limited to educational measures, however, a group visiting longhouses in Belaga, Sarawak, in 2015 were reported to have offered residents RM6,000 (£905; €1,270; US$1,360) each if they converted to Islam.
In March, the Kelantan State Assembly unanimously passed the Islamic hudud bill which allows the state’s sharia courts to punish the Muslim population by amputation, stoning, lashing and execution. Although not applying to non-Muslims it effectively prevents conversion from Islam to another religion, because the ultimate penalty for this would be a death sentence. Hudud (plural of hadd) refer to the severe punishments for offences that are considered as being against God himself, and are prescribed by the Quran.