An independent U.S. commission has accused Malaysia of “religious freedom violations,” citing the abduction of Pastor Raymond Koh and mysterious disappearances of another prominent religious figure and his wife, as well as a social activist.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) extensively mentioned Koh’s disappearance in its new report released Thursday, more than six months after placing Malaysia under its Tier 2 designation for the next most-serious level of religious freedom violations.
USCIRF’s report also came months after Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad told reporters he would open a new probe into the disappearances of Koh and social activist Amri Che Mat. His announcement followed a public inquiry that concluded the duo probably were abducted by state agents, including those linked to the national police’s special branch.
“The aforementioned cases are each disturbing in their own right, but together they are emblematic of a wider disregard for fundamental human rights in Malaysia,” USCIRF said referring to Koh and Amri.
In its 234-page report released on April 29, USCIRF placed Malaysia among 12 countries on Tier 2, including Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Cuba, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Laos, and Turkey.
The commission, which was created by Congress 20 years ago, defines Tier 2 as “nations in which the violations engaged in or tolerated by the government.” It noted that Malaysia has been under Tier 2 since 2014 “for engaging in or tolerating religious freedom violations.”
“Pervasive, institutionalized barriers remain in place that prevent Malaysians from practicing their faith or nonbelief in accordance with their conscience,” it said.
Malaysia’s National Human Rights Commission (Suhakam), in announcing the conclusion of its fact-finding mission in April, said Koh and Amri were abducted in similar ways by men wearing black face masks. Their abductions were swift and, in Koh’s abduction, was captured on surveillance cameras.
But the inquiry could not determine what happened to the two men after they were last seen.
Koh was snatched in broad daylight from a road in the suburbs of Kuala Lumpur on Feb. 13, 2017, when men in black SUVs and motorcycles forced his car to stop.
Amri, who is from Perlis, was last seen on Nov 24, 2016. His disappearance may have been religiously motivated based on allegations that he was spreading Shia Muslim teachings, according to local media reports.
Several rights groups had said Koh might have been targeted because religious authorities believed that he was spreading Christianity to Muslims. Evangelizing Muslims is a crime in Malaysia, where 61 percent of the country’s 33 million people are Muslim and about 20 percent are Buddhist.
USCIRF said “a number of prominent Malaysian religious minority leaders have mysteriously disappeared in recent years,” including Pastor Joshua Hilmy and his wife, Ruth. Hilmy converted to Christianity from Islam, while Ruth is an Indonesian and Christian from birth, it said.
In April, Koh’s wife, Susanna, said she would seek information from the police’s Special Branch or she would consider legal action, according to local reports.
Meanwhile, a nonprofit organization has launched an online campaign urging Christians worldwide to sign a petition demanding that the Malaysian government explain his disappearance. The petition has more than 29,800 signatures.
In its new report, USCIRF said that while the Malaysian constitution makes no distinction between Sunni and Shia Islam, in practice, Shia Muslims experience discrimination.
“Malaysian authorities surveil and harass Shia Muslims, ban literature that promotes non-Sunni Islamic beliefs, prohibit public worship or assembly, and threaten arrests for observing Shia Muslim holidays,” it said.
USCIRF's annual reports are different from the U.S. State Department’s annual international religious freedom report, which covers every nation in the world other than the United States. The commission documents 30 countries that have the most significant religious freedom violations and submits its annual report to the White House, the State Department, and Congress.
For 2019, the USCIRF listed 16 countries, including China and Burma, on Tier 1, alleging that such nations were suppressing religious freedom and permitting persecution.
The commission, in its special report on Malaysia, made several recommendations, including for the U.S. government to urge the Malaysian government to remove the religion field from its national ID cards and allow for marriage between Muslims and non-Muslims without conversion.
It also urged Washington to pressure the Malaysian government to acknowledge all peaceful religious activity as legitimate and end the arrest and detention of religious minorities.