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Monday, July 18, 2011

After the flop with Queen E, Najib looks to the Pope to rebuild his image

Sulaiman Kamal | 3:50 AM | | | | | | | Best Blogger Tips

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The state of the Vatican City is a landlocked sovereign city-state, whose territory consists of a walled enclave within the city of Rome, Italy. It has an area of approximately 44 hectares or 110 acres, and a population of just over 800.
The Pope is the head of state of Vatican City. The term Holy See refers not to the Vatican state but to the Pope's spiritual and pastoral governance, largely exercised through the Roman Curia. His official title with regard to Vatican City is Sovereign of the State of the Vatican City.

The principal subordinate government official for Vatican City is the President of the Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State, who since 1952 exercises the functions previously belonging to the Governor of Vatican City. Since 2001, the President of the Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State also has the title of President of the Governorate of the State of Vatican City.
Though the population of the city-state may be under a thousand, the influence of the Holy See stretches globally. The Holy See is pastor to 1.2 billion Catholics world-wide and commands diplomatic influence over numerous countries and international organizations.
Such is the influence of the Holy See that President Obama, weeks upon election into the office of the President of United States, paid a courtesy call to Pope Benedict XVI. An act of office, started by the late President Kennedy who initiated America’s connections with the Vatican.
Limp response
In 2002, former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad met Pope John Paul II for talks on Christian-Muslim relations at the Vatican. Neighbouring Indonesia and other mainly Muslim countries like Iran, Iraq and Pakistan have decades-long diplomatic ties with the Vatican.
According to a government official, previously Malaysia did not see a need to establish ties with the Vatican and there were political concerns such a move would be criticised by the opposition party namely PAS.
Yet, of late PAS has been seen by Malaysians as more moderate than Najib’s own UMNO. And it is indeed, UMNO via its mouth-piece Utusan Malaysia and Perkasa that has been attacking Christians.
Last month Najib met with Malaysian church leaders in a bid to ease religious tensions stirred by a Utusan Malaysia report that alleged Christians wanted to replace Islam as the official religion and install a Christian Prime Minister. An allegation that is still under a protracted investigation.
Najib is not a beacon of consistency when it comes to issues concerning the Christians in Malaysia. Back in January 2010, churches were attacked over the courts decision that gave The Herald, the Catholic church newsletter, the right to use the term ‘Allah’.
Najib’s response is typical, first denying that UMNO was flaming the issue and secondly that the Police would know best how to resolve any attacks against churches.
It is his limp response to the growing religious tensions in Malaysia that has Malaysian Christians disappointed. They are not confident that the Najib administration is capable or willing to protect their rights as citizens who have a constituted right of freedom to practice their beliefs.
And with general elections to be held no later than July 2013, Najib is desperate for every vote in his favor including from Christians, who make up 10 percent of the 28 million population.
Making use of the Christians
This visit to the papacy along with the prospect of Malaysia forming deplomatic ties with the Vatican is probably a face-saving move to affirm’s Najib’s attestment that Malaysia is a moderate Muslim country. A move designed to give the impression and perception, yet hide the real realities.
This is especially needed after last week's snub by Queen Elizabeth over his "excessive" crackdown on a citizens march for free and fair elections.
Shamsul Amri Baharuddin, head of the Institute of Ethnic Studies at the National University of Malaysia, said the federal government had made many attempts at interfaith dialogue in recent years. But these attempts have not been very successful, he said, in part because many aspects of religious practice are controlled by the state, such as regulations regarding Muslims who renounce the faith.
Forming ties with the Vatican would help the government demonstrate to Malaysian Christians that it respects different religions on an international level, Shamsul added. It would also contribute to Najib’s “1Malaysia” policy, which promotes national unity and inclusiveness, he added.
“He is trying to use external activities to impress upon the domestic constituencies that his government is recognizing the contribution of Christians in the country,” Mr Shamsul said.
But Christians unlikely to be fooled
A swing by Christian voters to the opposition in the 2008 election was partly attributed to dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of religious issues.
While Najib’s meeting with the pope is likely to be received well by Christians, analysts say it may not necessarily increase their support for the governing coalition, dominated by Najib's UMNO party, ahead of elections that must be held by mid-2013.
“Symbolically it’s meant to have that effect,” said Farish Ahmad Noor, a political scientist at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. “Whether that translates into a significant shift in votes, I still think that depends on a lot of other domestic concerns. There’s no point in Najib going to the Vatican if we were to have another spate of church bombings.”
It is telling that UMNO has not commented on this visit, neither has Utusan Malaysia or Perkasa. These staunch protectors of Malay rights and defenders of Islam have remained mum about Najib’s visit to the Holy See.
Instead it is the Christian community especially the Catholics who have voiced their disapproval of the presence of Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur, Murphy Pakiam, who may only be there for the image it can create for the Najib administration.
The Najib administration, with an eye to the photo opportunity that a call on the Pope would entail, may want the highest placed Catholic cleric in Malaysia in the picture, presumably for the impact it would have on Malaysian Catholics.
Lina Joy and UMNO's forked tongue
And this is what the visit is really about. Creating an image that the Najib administration is moderate and kind to Christians. But Najib speaks with a forked tongue.
For example, in Kota Baru a few weeks ago, the PM described Ambiga Sreenevasan, chairperson of Bersih, the pressure group for electoral reform, as “anti-Islam” for the watching brief she held as the then president of the Bar Council in the Lina Joy case a few years ago.
Lina Joy was a Muslim who converted to Catholicism before marrying a member of the faith. She filed a case against the Registration Department for insisting that her religion in her MyKad be marked as Muslim when she had converted out of the religion.
She lost the landmark case at every stage of its adjudication in the courts in what many felt was a violation of the freedom of religion guaranteed in the Federal Constitution.
Najib's tagging of Ambiga as “anti-Islam” was an astonishing misconstruction of her professional role as legal counsel in the Lina Joy case. But this is precisely the kind of distortion that has come to mark the PM's deportment in matters of grave concern.
Pope Benedict has made the defense of freedom of religion a foundational plank of his papacy. He is certain to look askance at a leader who has little or no grasp of professional legal norms, let alone constitutional ones.
So Najib may smile at the photo opportunity of meeting with such a leader as Pope Benedict XVI, but is he really prepared or matured enough for the reality of establishing relations with a city-state that commands the adoration of 1.2 billion followers?

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