Disappearance of Christian Pastors in Malaysia Prompts Fear of Authorities Targeting Religious Minorities

Some 60% of Malaysians are Muslim and Islam is enshrined in the constitution. (Photograph: Fazry Ismail/EPA)

The disappearance of three Christians and a man accused of spreading Shia Islam in Malaysia has prompted fears that authorities are targeting religious minorities with extrajudicial detention.

Video and witness evidence indicate that highly organised groups carried out abductions in public. Months after the men disappeared, family members have learned nothing about their whereabouts and human rights activists say police have taken an uncharacteristically “casual” approach to the cases.

“Do I think the state is linked to this? It is a difficult question to answer,” said Suzanna Liew, wife of pastor Raymond Koh, who went missing on 13 February. “But can I rule out the possibility that people in power are linked to this or know more than they are admitting? No, I cannot.”

Koh had been accused of attempting to convert Muslims – a crime in Malaysia – and had a received death threat. Less is known about the abduction of the Christian pastor Joshua Hilmy – a convert from Islam – and his wife Ruth, who were reported missing in March.

A fourth person also disappeared in a similar way. Amri Che Mat, abducted in November, according to witnesses, was accused of preaching Shia Islam, which is not recognised in officially Sunni Malaysia.

Thomas Fann, a human rights activist, founded Caged, the Citizen Action Group on Enforced Disappearance, in response to the cases.

“We say that there is a high probability there have been enforced disappearances, which means that the state may be directly or indirectly involved,” he said.“We have a reason to believe that there is a relationship because they are all faith-based workers.”

Fann and Sevan Doraisamay, executive director of the SUARAM human rights group, believe it is possible the group are victims of extra-judicial detention. The other possibility is that a professional criminal gang may have abducted them. If that were the case, it poses the question who could operate so effectively under the noses of Malaysia’s famously skilled security forces.

In an interview with the Guardian, Liew and Koh’s daughters Esther and Elizabeth Koh, described how they had lost trust in the police. They said officers had offered them no information and urged them not to speak to the media about case. The “last straw” was when they learned authorities were investigating Koh for preaching to Muslims.

On 24 May Malaysian police made the surprise announcement that a suspect had been arrested in the Koh case last week, without giving specific detail. The police also responded to allegations against them.

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SOURCE: The Guardian, Vincent Bevins