The  Religious Major Superiors of  Malaysia and Singapore are joined by (seated, second from left) Ms Zainah Anwar, Ms Marina Mahathir, Archbishop Joseph Marino, Associate Professor Farid Alatas (second from right) and Archbishop Emeritus Anthony Soter Fernandez of Kuala Lumpur (far right).The Religious Major Superiors of Malaysia and Singapore are joined by (seated, second from left) Ms Zainah Anwar, Ms Marina Mahathir, Archbishop Joseph Marino, Associate Professor Farid Alatas (second from right) and Archbishop Emeritus Anthony Soter Fernandez of Kuala Lumpur (far right).

The Conference of Religious Major Superiors (CRMS) of Malaysia and Singapore held the first of their bi-annual meetings this year from Jan 14-16 in Petaling Jaya, Selangor.

Twenty-five superiors of the various Religious congregations in both countries met to plan, discuss and share various concerns pertaining to their ministries and the Church.

A highlight of the three-day conference was a panel discussion with Muslim speakers, which took place on the final day.

The event started with a Mass by Apostolic Nuncio to Malaysia, Archbishop Joseph Marino, who expressed his appreciation for the Religious, while inviting them to be “creative and versatile” in attending to both the human and spiritual needs of those they serve.

The nuncio reminded the superiors of Pope Francis’ desire for a Church that is not merely concerned with itself and its rules but a Church which opens its doors to exclude no one.

This set the tone for a symposium on Islamisation and Dialogue which followed.

Lawyer Zainah Anwar, founder of Sisters-in-Islam; National University of Singapore Associate Professor Syed Farid Alatas, and journalist Marina Mahathir were the guest panelists.

Ms Anwar spoke on the challenges of the politicisation of Islam in Malaysia. Her work in Sisters-in-Islam, which pushes for procedural change, hopes to provide a clearer vision of the rich heritage of Islam which can serve society today. She stressed the need for public outrage and outcry when injustices occur in the name of religion.

A bipartisan approach and judicial training are among the proposals she advocates to counter the problem of the politicisation of Islam, she said.

Assoc Prof Alatas expressed concern that the tolerance of other faiths is under threat in Malaysia due to increased xenophobia, which at the same time violates Islamic values and norms.

Blaming reckless politicians who allow these issues to remain unresolved and extremist Islam leaders who propose anti-multi-culturalism, he sees the path towards a multi-cultural “One Malaysia” only through education, the creation of a world class Islamic education system, critique of extremism, inter-religious dialogue and peaceful civil disobedience.

Ms Mahathir spoke on dialogue requiring both language and freedom of speech. Yet language, she said, is contested these days. She illustrated the evolution of the word “pluralism” which today in Malaysia, is not just a benign word meaning “more than one”, but an ideology that needs to be banned.

She echoed Assoc Prof Alatas’ view that xenophobia is very real in Malaysia and proposed a need for inter-religious dialogue in the local languages and at a level that can be understood by all.

Also a member of Sisters-in-Islam, Ms Mathathir uses social media to create awareness of the reciprocity of kindness and solidarity among Christians and Muslims around the world.

The symposium provided insights to the multi-layered challenges posed by extremist Muslim leaders in Malaysia today.

Marist Br Robert Teo said, “It was good to hear about the struggles of the Muslim sisters and to be aware that the trend is more and more against human rights and freedom. Hopefully more collaboration among non-government organisations from all sectors can help to bring new hope for all.”

Br Ambrose Heng of the Brothers of Mercy found the inputs enlightening especially on “what is going on with the Muslim extremist ideas. We are not alone trying to convince and clarify the real practice of Islam. One should then not be afraid and confused but must try our best to encourage one another rather than pointing fingers, especially with the global Muslim unrest.”

Cenacle Sr Francisca Tan expressed the sentiments of the rest of the CRMS members when she said, “It was touching and edifying to have three prominent Muslims making time to be with us, sitting down with us and sharing such informative material.”

Archbishop Marino’s opening address stressed that inter-religious dialogue remains important and vital for the Church to promote peace and justice. He described the nature of dialogue as the meeting of “friends in the life of faith on the same journey to find God without whom life is incomplete”.

The Religious superiors also went on a field trip to learn more about Christian stewardship. The discussion on Ethical Investment and Passive Income Generation was made more real when they visited the grounds of the Marist Brothers in Port Dickson, where the Brothers develop renewable energy through solar panels.

At the estate of the Brothers of St Gabriel in Kuala Pilah, the superiors learned how oil palm farming was supporting their mission in Malaysia.

An engaging presentation by Gabrielite Br John Albert on Evangelical Use of Resources illustrated how economy and mission together play a vital role in consecrated life today.

- By Sr Wendy Ooi, FSP

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