Malaysian religious authorities have arrested eight people, including four foreigners, during a raid at a private gathering of Shia followers in southern Johor state, police said Tuesday, in the latest clampdown on adherents of the second-largest branch of Islam.
Eight men, including two Singaporeans, an Indonesian and a Yemeni, were arrested on charges of participating in a gathering that contravened the state’s religious regulations, police said.
If found guilty, the suspects could face heavy fines and up to a year in prison.
The Malaysian Constitution states that citizens may worship according to their beliefs, but the government of the Sunni Muslim-majority country bans the practice of Shia Islam, declaring its teachings “deviant.”
On Monday, a team composed of 32 officers raided a house near Johor Bahru, capital of Johor, a police official told BenarNews on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.
“The team found 54 people, consisting of 31 men and 23 women in the premises,” the official said. Officers also seized a variety of items, including a prayer book, he said.
“The items were seized as evidence that those arrested were alleged adherents of the Shia sect and promoting the belief,” the official said.
In Malaysia, raids and arrests against Shia Muslims often take place during the 10th day of Muharram, the first month in the Islamic lunar calendar, which falls on Sept. 10 this year.
During that event, Shia Muslims celebrate the anniversary of the death of Hussain Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, during the Battle of Karbala more than 3,000 years ago in what is now known as Iraq. Followers of the Sunni branch of Islam do not recognize Ali as being the prophet’s rightful successor.
The vast majority of the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims are Sunni, according to the Pew Research Center. As of the late 2000, Shia Muslims constituted 10 to 15 percent of Muslims, reports said.
While Sunnis rely heavily on the practice of the Prophet and his teachings, the Shia see their ayatollahs as reflections of God on Earth. This has led Sunnis to accuse the Shia of heresy; while the Shia point out that Sunni dogmatism has given rise to extremist sects.
Also on Monday, religious authorities raided a house and arrested an undetermined number of Pakistanis in Selangor state as they were practicing their Shia faith, police said.
The raid followed the arrest of 22 people three days earlier at the main Shia center in Selangor’s Gombak district.
The recent clampdown on private Shia activities marked a significant change in the government’s stance on foreigners practicing their banned Islamic faith in private.
Human rights abuse
Malaysia’s Shia chairman, Kamil Zuhairi Abdul Aziz, who had been detained numerous times in the past, described the series of raids as harassment.
“Every year, during Ashura celebration, I get detained,” Kamil told BenarNews. “I’ve been detained more than 10 times since 2010.”
There are an estimated 50,000 to 200,000 Shia followers in Malaysia, he said, underscoring the difficulty of determining an accurate number because followers fear harassment and potential arrests.
Meanwhile, the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) on Tuesday expressed its concern over the recent spate of arrests.
“Suhakam is extremely concerned by the recent raid on Shia Muslims in Gombak, which includes the arrest of children,” the commission said in a statement.
“Unless Malaysian authorities, NGOs and civil society respect and tolerate the religious practices of all people, we cannot truly profess to be a diverse and multi-cultural nation,” it said. “The right to freely practice any religion should be enjoyed by all, without fear of reprisal.”