Christianity in Malaysia

Christianity in Malaysia
Christianity by Country
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Christianity in Malaysia is a minority religion practised by 9.1% of the population (2000 census), most living in East Malaysia.[1] The major Christian denominations in Malaysia include the Anglicans, Baptists, Brethrens, non-denominational churches, independent Charismatic churches, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterian and Roman Catholics.[2]


Christianity in Malaysia

Early Christian presence in the Malay archipelago may be traced to Nestorians from as early as the 7th century[3] and to Persian and Nestorian traders in Malacca prior to the Portuguese conquest in 1511.[4] The British acquired Penang in 1786, and in 1795 took over Malacca, which had been conquered by the Dutch in 1641. Catholic priests from Thailand established the Major Seminary in Penang in 1810. The LMS was based in Malacca and Penang from 1815, but most Protestant missions collapsed after 1842 when it became possible to enter China. Catholic leadership remained, but was divided between Portuguese and French. Open Brethren ministry dates from 1860 and Methodist from 1885. Presbyterianism grew through Chinese churches in Johore and expatriate congregations in Penang, Ipoh and Kuala Lumpur. Mission to Sengoi indigenous people began in 1932. Pentecostalism became a larger influence through the Charismatic Movement of the 1970s, but North American and Ceylon Pentecostal missionaries (CPM) had been active from 1935.[5]

The influence of the Spanish missionaries coming mainly from neighboring Philippines resulted in Christianity, in its Roman Catholic form, rising to prominence amongst Kadazans in Sabah.[6] Migration was also an important factor in the spread of Christianity. The Basel Mission also worked in Sabah in 1882 among migrant Hakka Chinese, many of whom were Christian. Tamil migrants to Malaya included Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, and Methodists. Migration increased after the Boxer Rebellion, particularly to Sitiawan and Sibu, still strong Chinese Methodist centres. Mar Thoma and Syrian Orthodox Churches were established in the 1930s following migration from the Kerala Coast of India.

In Sarawak the rule of Rajah Brooke included support for an Anglican ministry from 1847 and Catholics were later admitted.[7] In 1928 the Australian Borneo Evangelical Mission[8] began work with modest resources which nevertheless resulted in the largest indigenous church in Malaysia today, the Sidang Injil Borneo (English: Borneo Evangelical Church).

The Lutheran Zion Church in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur, established in 1924.

World War II saw the removal of expatriate leadership and a path towards an indigenous church was more clearly set. The Malayan Christian Council (MCC), founded in 1948, coordinated mission groups during the Malayan Emergency. Chinese relocated into 'New Villages' were served by missionaries, sometimes ex-China, who worked alongside local Christians in social and medical work. However after independence in 1957, many churches were overdependent on expatriates. In the 1970s churches developed structures independent of Singapore as well as of overseas support. Recent growth in independent churches is another sign of a desire to establish a Malaysian Christian identity.[5]

Christian commitment to education has been strong through Anglican, Catholic and Methodist schools, now part of the government education system. Social concern is expressed through medical work, and organisations such as Malaysian CARE. The Salvation Army and YMCA/YWCAs make distinctive contributions.

Since 1983 the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship (NECF) has provided a focus for evangelical and independent congregations. The Christian Federation of Malaysia incorporating the Christian Council of Malaysia (formerly MCC), Roman Catholics, and the NECF was formed in 1986. The Sabah Council of Churches and Association of Churches of Sarawak fulfil similar functions in East Malaysia.

Malaysia is a multi-religious context where Western theological preoccupations are not always relevant. Lay leadership has developed strongly in most churches. Although there are many challenges through changing political and economic circumstances, like Malaysia itself, the churches are beginning to see that they have a contribution to make on a larger stage.[9]

Church buildings

Church of the Divine Mercy in Shah Alam. The church was built in an industrial area.

Churches are allowed in Malaysia, though there are restrictions on construction of new churches through discriminatory zoning laws. No pre-existing churches have been closed down by the government and no standing congregations have been disbanded. However, it is difficult to build new churches. For instance, it took more than twenty years for the local authority in Shah Alam to allow a church to be built there, with an additional condition that the church must look like a factory and not a more conventional church appearance. Most of the time, new churches are started in a clandestine manner as ordinary businesses in shops, especially in major cities like Kuala Lumpur.


Sacred Heart Cathedral in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah

The freedom to practice and propagate religion is guaranteed under the Article 11 of the Constitution of Malaysia and this is generally respected. The Constitution however allows for the restriction of the propagation of religions other than Islam to the Muslim community and the ambiguity of these provisions has resulted in some problems.[10][11]

It has been the practice of the church in Malaysia to not actively proselytize to the Muslim community. Christian literature are required by law to carry a caption "for non-Muslims only". Article 11(4) of the Federal Constitution of Malaysia allows the states to prohibit the propagation of other religions to Muslims, and most (with the exception of Penang, Sabah, Sarawak and the Federal Territories) have done so. While there is no actual legal restraint against Muslims renouncing their faith in favor of another faith, in practice very few Muslims actually convert. This is partly due to the fact it is extremely difficult for Muslims to convert, as there are serious implications under Islamic law, and because Islam has played a major role in the Malay community for centuries, thus resulting into very strong adherents. See also Status of religious freedom in Malaysia.

There are, however, cases in which a Muslim will adopt the Christian faith without declaring his/her apostasy openly. In effect, they are practising Christians, but legally Muslims. Family pressure, and fear of losing one's spouse or children is usually a sufficient deterrent to prevent leaving Islam.[10]

Those showing interest in the Christian faith or other faith practices not considered orthodox by state religious authorities are usually sent either by the police or their family members to state funded Faith Rehabilitation Centres (Malay: Pusat Pemulihan Akidah) where they are counseled to remain faithful to Islam and some states have provisions for penalties under their respective Shariah legislations for apostasy from Islam.[11][12]


As a Muslim majority country, opinions on whether the Indonesian-language Bible and Malay-language Bible, both known by the name al-kitab, should be banned, are polarised.[13] The word rendered ‘Lord’ in English translations is given in Malay as ‘Tuhan’ while the word ‘God’ in English is translated as ‘Allah’. It was claimed that there is no closer translation from the original Hebrew since both Arabic and the Hebrew word for God come from the same Semitic root. Other Christian materials in the Malay language have been banned at various times for similar reason. However, the Prime Minister clarified in April 2005 that there was no ban on Bibles translated into Malay, but they must be stamped with the disclaimer "Not for Muslims".[14]

The Iban Bible named Bup Kudus was also banned for using the term Allah Taala for God. Eventually it was explained to the government that there was no other comparable term in Iban. As such the ban was not enforced further but it was neither officially repealed. The ban was later lifted only for Iban people usage, after protests from the Christian leaders.


Christian Missionary schools are part of education system in Malaysia today and administered by Ministry of Education with little interference by the churches where they belong to. Missionary schools are partially government-funded while teachers and administration staffs are provided by the government. Most of the missionary schools are constructed before Malaysia was formed. Christian religious symbols such as crucifixes are visible to many Christian missionary schools. However, display of crucifixes to non-missionary schools are normally disallowed.

There are no official school subjects for Christian students. However, Christian and other non-Muslim students are allowed to take Bible Knowledge subject, the only Christian-related subject in SPM (Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia or Malaysia Certificate of Education) for secondary school. There are various non-official Christian school subjects, but it mostly caters for Christians and non-Muslims.


There are many Christian Songwriters in Malaysia, but the market is still fresh and not widespread. A network called the Malaysian Christian Songwriters Network,[15] has been set up to promote the Malaysian Christian music scene.


Mel Gibson's 2004 film The Passion of The Christ saw a restricted release in Malaysia. Officially, the movie was open to Christians only. Attendance was discouraged since tickets were not carried by the usual box offices. Christian groups such as the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship arranged block bookings of cinemas and distributed tickets to various churches. An initial run of two-months was extended, making it appear doubtful that only Christians viewed the film.


Festive service at the Catholic Church of the Visitation in Seremban

Actual modes of worship such as the liturgy used and the sermons are not actively censored or controlled by the government. Occasional surveillance of worship by clandestine operatives does occur.

It has been reported that several public secondary schools and universities have unofficially banned on-campus Christian activities, such as Christian Fellowship (CF). CFs in affected schools have since been relocated to homes in order to continue functioning.[verification needed]



Christmas is a public holiday in Malaysia, though much of the public celebration is commercial in nature and has no overt religious overtones. Occasionally, Christian activist groups do buy newspaper advertorials on Christmas or Easter, but this is largely only allowed in English-language newspapers and permission is not given every year. The advertorials themselves are usually indirect statements.

In 2004 the government organised a national-level Christmas celebration but allegedly imposed an unofficial ban on all Christian religious symbols and hymns that specifically mention Jesus Christ.[16] The event was jointly organised by the Arts, Culture and Heritage ministry, the government of the state of Selangor and the Christian Federation of Malaysia (CFM). It was reported in advance that the Sultan of Selangor and his consort, the Prime Minister as well as assorted cabinet ministers would be in attendance, and that the event would be televised.

O.C. Lim, a former lawyer turned Jesuit priest and director of the Catholic Research Centre (also assistant parish priest of St Francis Xavier's Church) has lodged a formal complaint. He has also stated that "To exclude (such) carols and to use (Christmas) for political gain is outrageous, scandalous and sacrilegious." He also said "To call it a cultural event (as rationalised by Christian politicians who are more politician than Christian) is to downgrade Jesus to a cultural sage such as Confucius."

CFM general secretary Rev Dr Hermen Shastri stated that the government wanted "nothing that insults Islam" during the open house.

Arts, Culture and Heritage Minister Dr Rais Yatim later denied that any such ban had been "issued officially or unofficially". He also added that there is "nothing wrong in singing songs such as 'Silent Night' and 'Merry Christmas'" as they are "joyous songs for the festival."

Lee Min Choon, legal adviser to the CFM and the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship issued a statement which said "It means that churches can celebrate Christmas as they have been doing all along. Otherwise, the very meaning of the occasion will be lost." "Now, everybody should take the government at its word and celebrate Christmas the way they normally celebrate and express their religious faith."

Good Friday

Good Friday is not a federal public holiday, but is a state public holiday in Sabah where Christians constitute a significant minority, and also in Sarawak where Christianity is the largest religion; both states were granted some level of greater autonomy than other states in the Federation, as they were considered polities on par with Malaya when they merged with it and Singapore to form Malaysia. But it is a school holiday for some schools.

However, there is no evidence that this theological objection plays any role in the non-inclusion of Good Friday as a holiday. On the contrary, Good Friday is probably not a public holiday because, as a whole in the federation, Christians constitutes a slight minority - 9.1% according to the 2000 Census. The other two significant religious minorities in Malaysia, Buddhists and Hindus, also receive just one federal public holiday each — Wesak Day and Deepavali respectively. Deepavali however, is not federal holiday in the state of Sarawak.

Independence Day/Malaysia Day fasting

Malaysian Christians sometimes hold fasts ending on Independence Day or Malaysia Day and pray for Muslims. A number of explanations have been given for doing so including a desire to show patriotism, promoting religious harmony, and celebrating freedom of religion. Since 2000 the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship, with 2,800 member churches, has organized these fasts and they are ongoing event as of 2010. All previous fasts have ended on Independence Day but the 2010 fast is followed by Malaysia Day and thus for the first time coincided with Ramadan.[17]

Demographics of adherents

By ethnicity

The 2000 Population and Housing Census Report gives the following statistics [18]:

Bumiputra Chinese Indian Other ethnicities Non citizens
1,258,741 (59.4%) 546,422 (25.8%) 129,368 (6.1%) 36,679 (1.7%) 146,778 (6.9%)
% of Total Bumiputra % of Total Chinese % of Total Indian % of Total other ethnicities % of Total Non citizens
8.9% 9.6% 7.7% 13.6% 10.6%

By state & territory

The 2000 Population and Housing Census Report gives the following statistics (excluding non citizens) [18]:

State Adherents % of Population
Johor 54,920 2.0%
Kedah 12,569 0.8%
Kelantan 2,575 0.2%
Malacca 22,392 3.7%
Negeri Sembilan 22,405 2.7%
Pahang 14,749 1.2%
Perak 61,175 3.1%
Perlis 992 0.5%
Penang 44,323 3.6%
Sabah 691,096 28%
Sarawak 852,198 42.4%
Selangor (including Federal Territory of Putrajaya) 166,018 4.2%
Terengganu 2,641 0.3%
Federal Territory Adherents % of Population
Kuala Lumpur 71,819 5.5%
Labuan 8,933 12.6%

By urban-rural strata

The 2000 Population and Housing Census Report indicates that approximately 11.5% of the rural population and 7.6% of the urban population are adherents to Christianity making Christians the 2nd largest and 4th largest faith community in their respective population strata.[18]

See also


  1. ^ "Population Distribution and Basic Demographic Characteristics Report - Population & Housing Census 2000" (Press release). Department of Statistics, Malaysia. 2001-11-06. Retrieved 2008-07-27. 
  2. ^ "Operation World: Malaysia". Operation World. WEC International. Retrieved 2008-07-26. 
  3. ^ M. Kamal Hassan & Ghazali Bin Basri, ed (2005). "Christianity". Encyclopedia of Malaysia. 10 (1st ed.). Kuala Lumpur: Editions Didier Millet. Retrieved 2008-07-26. 
  4. ^ Brian E., Colless (1969 - 1970). "The Traders of the Pearl. The Mercantile and Missionary Activities of Persian and Armenian Christians in South East-Asia". Abr-Nahrain IX: 102–121. 
  5. ^ a b Hunt, Robert; Lee Kam Hing, John Roxborogh (1992). Christianity in Malaysia - A Denominational History. Kuala Lumpur: Pelanduk Publications. ISBN 9789679784077. 
  6. ^ Assessment for Kadazans in Malaysia
  7. ^ Saunders, Graham (1991). Bishops and Brookes: Anglican Mission and the Brooke Raj in Sarawak, 1848-1941. Melbourne, Victoria: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195885668. 
  8. ^ Lees, Shirley, 'Drunk before Dawn', OMF, ISBN 085363128X
  9. ^ Daniel, Ho (1996). "Malaysia". In Saphir P., Athyal. Church in Asia Today: Challenges and Opportunities. Asia Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization. pp. 266–298. 
  10. ^ a b "Malay converts to Christianity "cannot renounce Islam"". AsiaNews (AsiaNews C.F.). 2005-09-11. Retrieved 2008-07-26. 
  11. ^ a b (PDF) Doing The Right Thing: A Practical Guide on Legal Matters for Churches in Malaysia. Petaling Jaya: Kairos Research Centre. 2004. pp. 35–46; Appendix 1, Appendix 2. ISBN 98395064. 
  12. ^ "Akidah: Ajaran Sesat" (in Malay). Nota Tingkatan 5 (Chief Minister's Department, Sabah State Government). Retrieved 2008-07-26. 
  13. ^ MALAYSIA No Bible in local languages - Asia News
  14. ^ Bahasa Malaysia bibles not for Muslims | Spero News
  15. ^ [1]
  16. ^ "Rev Lim: Excluding carols with Jesus' name is scandalous". Mkini Dotcom Sdn Bhd. 2004-12-11. Retrieved 2008-06-28. 
  17. ^ Christians fast this Ramadan ‘for the country’, by Boo Su-Lyn, Malaysian Insider, 20 August 2010
  18. ^ a b c General Report of the Population and Housing Census 2000. Putrajaya: Department of Statistics, Malaysia. 2005. ISBN 9839044265. 

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