Catholic leaders in Muslim-dominated Malaysia are rejoicing at the opening of their country’s first embassy at the Vatican – a move touted by their government as boosting closer bilateral ties with the Holy See and promoting religious moderation and tolerance.
Foreign Minister Anifah Aman this week presided over the inauguration of the Chancery of the Malaysian Embassy to the Holy See, much to the delight of clergy in the eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak – where the bulk of Malaysia’s Catholic and Christian communities is concentrated.
Richard Ng, the bishop of Miri district in Sarawak, said the diplomatic milestone represented a door to better mutual understanding and a way to bridge a gap between Malaysia and the Roman Catholic Church.
“We feel good to be close to Pope Francis, the Holy Father, even though we in Malaysia are just a small community,” he told BenarNews.
Sarawak Deputy Chief Minister James Masing described it as a good opportunity for Bernard Giluk Dompok, the ambassador to the Vatican, to highlight multi-ethnic and multi-religious Malaysia as an inclusive country.
“We are moderates and not extremists and Ambassador Bernard Dompok will set that straight,” he told BenarNews.
Dompok previously served as Sabah chief minister and a federal minister.
Of the country’s 31.7 million people, slightly more than 9 percent are Christians – and about half of them are Catholics. They mostly are from ethnic Chinese, Indian or indigenous backgrounds, according to 2016 statistics.
Malaysia and the Holy See established diplomatic ties in 2011 and, in November 2015, Malaysia opened an embassy with a residence in Rome.
Last year, Malaysian Catholics had another reason to celebrate as Pope Francis elevated Msgr. Anthony Soter Fernandez, the emeritus archbishop of Kuala Lumpur, as the nation’s first-ever cardinal – the second highest rank in the church, next to the pontiff.
In opening the diplomatic mission on Tuesday, Anifah said it symbolized Malaysia’s commitment to enhance mutual ties, particularly on religious matters, and promote better understanding about religion.
“Malaysia strongly believes in the need to practice moderation as the fundamental element to foster greater integration, ensuring peaceful coexistence through the rejection of extremism that undermines the universal values of religion,” the foreign minister said at the Vatican, according to Malaysia’s state-run Bernama news service.
“It is good news for once between the government and Christians,” said Jonathan Ng whose children attend a Catholic school in the state of Selangor.
But some other Catholics were skeptical.
Mutual cooperation would be positive, but the reality of life for members of religious minorities in Malaysia may not change, Nelson Zuzartee told BenarNews.
“It is still difficult to get permits to open a church here. It is hard to get visa approvals to travel to the Holy See,” he said. “It is cosmetics, for international diplomacy.”
Laja Laing in Kuching, Sarawak, contributed to this report.