The annual International Religious Freedom Report issued by the US State Department listed Malaysia alongside Israel, Turkey, Russia, Indonesia, Brunei, Belarus, Eritrea and Moldova as countries with laws or policies that favoured certain religions and placed others at a disadvantage.

The report, released last week to widespread anger from criticised nations, said such policies curtailed religious freedom, citing for example the difficulty of a Muslim in Malaysia to switch religion.

Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar was quoted by The Star as saying that Malaysia's inclusion was unacceptable and was made with bad intentions. He said it had implications on the country's security.
 
"From the way the report was prepared, I think they have a mission and that is to tarnish our image as a multi-religious country," he said.

'Western discrimination'

The national Bernama news agency quoted the minister as saying that freedom of worship in Malaysia was even more apparent than in some Western countries, which not only banned headscarves in schools, referring to recent events in France, but also enforced various laws that discriminated against Muslims.

FM Syed Hamid Albar says an
official protest may be lodged

He said the government would seek an explanation from the US embassy here before deciding whether to lodge an official protest.
 
"We want to hear their side of the story. We wish to find out the criteria they applied in coming up with the report. If we were to find that it ... is totally untrue and completely baseless, we'll submit a protest note," he added.

Racial issues are sensitive in Malaysia, where there is a large ethnic Chinese and Hindu community alongside the majority Muslims who make up some 60% of Malaysia's 25 million population.

Joint celebrations

Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who leads a coalition of multi-racial parties, has also rejected the US report, saying the fact that all Malaysians jointly celebrated the various festivities of the major religions was a mark of tolerance.

The Star said Abdullah has sent personal Christmas cards to 1500 pastors and Christian leaders in the country, the first premier to ever do so.
 
In the cards, Abdullah, who took over from veteran strongman Mahathir Muhammad on 31 October after 22 years in power, thanked Christians for their prayers and urged them to strive to make Malaysia "a kinder, more tolerant and better home for all of us".