Government in Malaysia's Selangor state says church should put back cross

(Photo: REUTERS / Samsul Said)A Muslim woman cries during a special prayer outside Malaysia's Court of Appeal in Putrajaya, outside Kuala Lumpur, March 5, 2014. Malaysia's Federal Court has reserved its ruling on an appeal from a Catholic newspaper to use the word Allah to refer to God, an issue that had fanned religious tensions and raised questions over minority rights in this mainly Muslim country.

The government in Malaysia's Selangor state says there is no law compelling the removal of a cross from a Christian church as demanded by a group of Islamic demonstrators and after a local official deemed it illegal.

About 50 Malaysians had pressured a newly-inaugurated church to remove a cross on the building, claiming that the symbol "challenged" Islam given that the area was inhabited by a Muslim majority there.

Local residents of Tama Medan said the protest in Petaling Jaya was staged during a Sunday service April 19, drawing criticism from church leaders and state legislators.

One assemblyman described the action as "politically motivated."

In an April 22 statement, the state government's Committee on Non-Islam Affairs (HESI) clarified that churches need only to give it notice they intend to erect a place of worship in commercial premises.

"Since 2008, the previous State Committee on Non-Islam Affairs has allowed churches to operate in commercial premises or offices without the need for application of permits," explained HESI co-chair Elizabeth Wong, The Malaysian Insider reported.

"This is based on the principle that Article 11 of the Federal Constitution embodies freedom of worship," Wong noted.

She said an earlier statement by a Petaling Jaya city council officer that the church had operated illegally because it lacked a permit was inaccurate.

"There is no such policy put forward by the state committee, HESI. A notification to HESI committee suffices," Wong said. 

"There are, however, existing guidelines on standalone Non-Islamic Buildings of Worship, which cover land applications, land conversions, buildings, demolitions and applications for funds," Wong explained.

The protesters demanded church officials to take down the cross placed outside the place of worship saying it "challenged Islam" as the church was situated in a predominantly Muslim community.

Officials from the church, called Community of Praise Petaling Jaya Church immediately removed the symbol of the crucifixion of Jesus.

Wong said she called a meeting involving representatives from the state government, members of parliament, and church leaders April 22 to clear the air for the Christians.

"The state government finds the forcible removal of the cross to be abhorrent to Christians and to the fundamentals of freedom of worship enshrined in the Federal Constitution," she recalled.

"In the meeting, we have advised the church to return the cross to its original site to stop this precedent of mob rule by politically-aligned extremists."

Wong likewise instructed the police to take the incident seriously to prevent other similar incidents from happening again.

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