Missing plane bolsters racial unity in Malaysia

  • AP, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
  • |
  • Updated: Mar 19, 2014 15:59 IST
  • Malaysia airplane MH370

    A woman reads messages for passengers aboard a missing Malaysia Airlines plane, at a shopping mall in Petaling Jaya, near Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. (AP Photo)

  • Malaysia airplane MH370

    An unidentified woman wearing a mask depicting the flight of the missing Malaysia Airline, MH370, poses in front of the "wall of hope" at Kuala ...

  • Malaysia Airline MH370

    This graphic released by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA), shows an area, left bottom, in the southern Indian Ocean that the AMSA is concentrating ...

  • Malaysia airplane MH370

    A personnel of Indonesia's National Search and Rescue looks over horizon during a search in the Andaman sea area around northern tip of Indonesia's Sumatra ...

  • Malaysia airplane MH370

    A woman writes on a banner carrying messages for the passengers of missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 at Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) in Sepang, ...

  • Malaysia airplane MH370

    Students stand next to a giant mural featuring missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 displayed on the grounds of their school in Manila's financial district of ...

  • Malaysia airplane MH370

    A Royal Australian Air Force pilot of an AP-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft scans the surface of the sea near the west of Peninsula Malaysia ...

  • Malaysia airplane MH370

    A mother of a passenger onboard the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 cries as she listens to a briefing from the airline company at a ...

The imam cupped his palms before his face and invited the congregation to pray. "Oh Allah, return to us those who are lost. Oh, Allah, grant safe passage to MH370," he said.

The prayer was not unusual. The setting was.

Gathered in the courtyard of a shopping mall in a suburb of Kuala Lumpur, the Muslim religious leader was followed by a Christian reading from the Bible, then a Buddhist monk, a Hindu and finally a Taoist priest echoing the imam's pleas before hundreds of worshippers in a largely Muslim country where religious intolerance has been on the rise.

The baffling mystery over the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 with 239 people on March 8 has united Malaysia, a nation of numerous ethnicities, as never before in recent memory.

Tuesday night's interfaith ceremony would have been inconceivable 11 days ago in the country of 28 million people where religious differences and bigotry have often been on open display. For Malaysians the sight of non-Muslims bowing respectfully as Imam Hilman Nordin said prayers from the rostrum was an incredible step toward unity. While there have been interfaith prayers before, they have always been without a Muslim representative.

Muslims have been at loggerheads with Christians and Hindus in recent years, and some sermons last month identified Christians and Jews as enemies of Islam. Hard-line Muslims have called for the burning of Bibles and in January firebombs were thrown into a church compound. A few years ago, a group of Muslims stomped on the severed head of a cow outside a Hindu temple. Cows are sacred to Hindus.

"In the shared sadness of loss, the tragedy has revealed and reinforced a strong sense of community," said Bridget Welsh, a political scientist from Singapore Management University. "If anything, this is a silver lining of the tragedy."

Some of the enmity rises from the right of non-Muslims to use the word "Allah." The government and hardliners say Allah - the Arabic word for God - is exclusively for Malay Muslims, who account for about 60 percent of the population. The Roman Catholic Church has challenged that assertion in an ongoing court case which many Muslims see as a threat to the dominance of Islam. Most indigenous tribes in Borneo are Christians and speak only the Malay language in which the word for God is Allah.

The case remains unresolved in court and religious tension continues to fester.

In January this year, Islamic authorities seized more than 300 Malay-language Bibles from the office of a Christian group because they used the word Allah.

This row over a single word has blackened the country's image for religious tolerance and hardened the longstanding sense of alienation among ethnic and religious minorities who feel discriminated against by decades of affirmative action policies that benefit Malay Muslims in business, jobs and education. Chinese, who are Buddhists, Christians and Taoists, account for 21 percent of the population, and Indians, who are Hindus, Sikhs and Christians, are about 7 percent.

But such differences have been set aside - at least temporarily - following the disappearance of the plane after it took off from Kuala Lumpur for Beijing on March 8. A massive sea and air hunt by 26 nations continues.

Thousands of Malaysians of all ethnic backgrounds were also touched by the tweets of Maira Elizabeth Nari, daughter of the chief steward aboard the plane.

"It has been more than 100 hours. Where are you?" she wrote in one tweet. One of her 40,000 followers encouraged her, saying, "Keep on praying, pray to Allah."

At the interfaith vigil at the Curve in the Kuala Lumpur suburb of Damansara Perdana, leaders of several religious groups went on stage to offer their prayers. Many in the crowd wore white T-shirts with the words "Unite for MH370" and held white balloons with handwritten messages of hope.

"Today is a rare occasion for us to bring unity, peace and harmony," said a Buddhist monk who chanted a prayer for the plane's safety.

"Please come back home. We are all in tears waiting for you, brothers and sisters," said Shantha Venugopal, the Hindu representative. The Taoist priest beseeched God for divine intervention while the Sikh leader pleaded for a closure to the plane's disappearance.

Teh Su They, whose Global Peace Foundation co-organized the gathering with local singer Reshmonu, a Hindu, said the tragedy showed that "deep inside the heart of every Malaysian, we care for one another, that we are one family. In this difficult time we need to come closer to support each other."

In a statement, Reshmonu said, "For one night, we forget our divisions and stand united for... faith, compassion and love."

"Because of this tragedy, we stand as one and respect one another's religion. I see this as Allah's wisdom behind this tragedy to reunite all Malaysians," said Nurul Arfarina Nasir, a 28-year-old housewife wearing a headscarf and holding a white balloon.


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