Malaysian Christians, who account for less than 10 percent of the population, have always celebrated Christmas with great joy and enthusiasm.
Christians also enjoy Muslim-majority Malaysia’s friendly holiday-time culture with shopping malls extensively decorated with Santa Claus, Christmas trees, and reindeers – as “Jingle Bells” plays in the background.
Malaysian Muslims have happily accepted Christmas get-together invitations from their friends, and the atmosphere during this holiday season has always been a pleasant one.
This year, however, Christmas celebrations may be held with mixed feelings against the backdrop of the bitter “Allah” case that concluded in June.
That’s when an Islamic court ruled the word “Allah” could not be used in local Christian publications. Christians say “Allah” had been used for centuries in Malay-language Bibles and other literature to refer to “God” outside of Islam.
The case caught the attention of the public with large crowds of Malay Muslims gathering at the court entrance demanding the court ban local Christian publications from using “Allah”.
I have been receiving Facebook posts where some of my Muslim friends post statements from Muslim clerics prohibiting us from greeting Christians on Christmas Day.
The ill-timing of a recent incident – with police seizing 31 copies of Catholic hymn books in the southern Malaysian state of Johor – begs the question: Have relations soured so badly between Malaysian Christians and Muslims that Christmas celebrations this year may not be so sweet any more?
Kethy Mary, who is a Malaysian Christian, does not think so.
Living in eastern Malaysia, she said harmony between the two communities has hardly been affected and the spirit of Christmas celebrations this year will be as joyous as ever.
“On Christmas Day, I wake up by 4am to prepare food for my guests who are both Christians and Muslims. Of course, I ensure that halal food has been prepared for my Muslim guests,” Kethy told Al Jazeera. “I leave for church at 7am and return home at 9am. By 11am, guests would have started arriving.”
Kethy rejected the idea that churches should be protected by the police on Christmas Day for fear of vandalism. She said no such acts of violence would ever take place on December 25.
Malaysian Muslims such as Juliana Omar second Kethy’s belief.
“I think the question of police protection for churches should not even come up. We are a peaceful society and do not believe in using violence to promote our ideas,” Juliana said.
But she added: “I have my reservations against the Christians using the word Allah. On one hand, I feel it’s fine for them to use the word Allah, but then why do they hesitate from using Issa [Arabic name for Jesus] for Jesus in their publication?”
Juliana said such arguments can be frustrating but she believes Malaysian society must stick to the old dictum “we agree to disagree.”
“I have been receiving Facebook posts where some of my Muslim friends post statements from Muslim clerics prohibiting us from greeting Christians on Christmas Day,” she told Al Jazeera.
While Juliana does not take these messages to heart and said this will not affect the festive Christmas mood in the country, not all people concur with her views.
Khadijah, who asked that her real name not be published for fear of reprisals, said feelings between the two religious communities have taken a wrong turn.
“I would go as far as to say that there should be police protection for churches during Christmas,” she said. “While I as a Muslim strongly believe that Christians should be able to use the word Allah, many Muslim fanatics do not agree with me.”
Khadijah said such people may hold deep grudges against the Christian community, which could result in negative incidents. She said the whole “Allah” dispute should never have been raised in the first place.
|A Muslim woman wearing a niqab attends a protest against the use of the word ‘Allah’ by a Christian weekly magazine [EPA]|
“My resentment is not against Christians but Muslims who actually oppose the usage, even more so against those who have a problem with us greeting Christians on Christmas.”
In a country with a mixed population of ethnic Malays, Chinese and Indians and a myriad of religions, cultural and religious tolerance holds the key to a peaceful and stable Malaysia.
According to some, however, this religious and cultural harmony is difficult to achieve when tensions are created intentionally by political leaders.
Valery Jacques, a Christian from the Malaysian state of Selangor, said racial animosity is stirred up by local leaders to maintain power by using the historical policy of divide and conquer.
“Issues like this are continuously highlighted by politicians to create divisions and support the concept of divide and rule and instil fear rather than harmony,” Jacques told Al Jazeera.
She said if this is the agenda of some political leaders, then the Malaysian community has to on its own realise what beliefs and actions are beneficial and harmful to the country as a whole.
“But this [divide and rule policy] is a false perception as the rulers and politicians are actually servants to the citizens who support their existence through taxes and election, and when people are tired of this then the time will come for change.”
Jacques said this is already happening in the country and perhaps this year’s Christmas celebrations will be a test to see if it can uphold the nationwide belief in a “one and united Malaysia”.