Malaysia this week demolished the rural commune of what it called a ‘deviant’ religious sect.
Bulldozers tore down a house-sized concrete teapot and a towering yellow umbrella that are the symbols of the Sky Kingdom inter-faith community, whose founder claims to be reincarnation of the holy figures of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam.
Although most Malayians have dismissed its founder, Ayah Pin, as a crank, Human Rights Watch, the New York-based international rights group, said the police action represented increased religious intolerance in Muslim-dominated Malaysia.
Forty-nine Muslim members of Sky Kingdom, which also includes followers from other faiths, face prosecution for renouncing Islam, a crime in Malaysia punishable by jail.
Ayah Pin, whose real name is Ariffin Mohammed, was imprisoned by an Islamic court for a nearly a year on similar charges in 2001. He fled the compound last month and is now being hunted by authorities.
The case is expected to fuel a growing debate on whether the Malaysian constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom applies to Muslims.
Ethnic Malays, who make up about half of Malaysia’s multi-racial population, are automatically regarded as Muslims under the country’s laws. But when some have tried to convert to other religions, they have been punished for apostasy by Islamic courts.
The issue is a sensitive one for the national government, headed by the United Malays National Organisation, which represents moderate Islam against the fundamentalist doctrine of the opposition Islamic Party of Malaysia (Pas).
The government has refused to endorse the idea that Muslims can practise Islam in diverse ways, out of apparent fear that such a decision might benefit Pas. It recently declared 22 religious groups representing some 20,000 people as “deviant sects of Islam”.
Sisters in Islam, a progressive Muslim organisation, said the action against Sky Kingdom, which has existed for 30 years, was unwarranted because the group was “not being a threat to public safety, order, health or morals”.
The dispute over Sky Kingdom is seen as politically tricky since the group is based in Terengganu, a conservative Muslim east-coast state that was a former Pas stronghold until Umno was elected to power a year ago.
There are suggestions the central government allowed local authorities to conduct the raid on Sky Kingdom to increase support for Umno in Terengganu. A local court earlier blocked an order by authorities to demolish the commune for alleged violations of building codes.
Human Rights Watch said local lawyers had refused to represent Sky Kingdom members before the state’s Islamic court because “some of them have expressed fears of reprisal from religious extremists or loss of their accreditation”.
The Sky Kingdom members were arrested two days after a mob last month attacked the religious commune with Molotov cocktails. Malaysian police failed to arrest anyone involved in the attack.