Shiite Muslims in Malaysia have made a rare public plea for authorities to let them legally worship amid fears of a clampdown on outlawed religious groups, a human rights official said on Tuesday.
Malaysian religious officials allow only Sunni Islam to be openly practiced by Muslims, who make up nearly two-thirds of this Southeast Asian country's population. All other Islamic denominations including the Shiite are considered illegal. Sunni Islam is the world's largest branch of the religion, followed by Shiite Islam, which is practiced mostly in Iran, Iraq and Bahrain, though there are sizable minority populations in many Muslim countries.
Islamic authorities detained more than 200 Shiite Muslims at a prayer meeting in central Malaysia earlier this month in one of the largest recent mass arrests of its kind. Government-linked newspapers have since published articles warning people to avoid illegal sects.
About 30 Shiite community representatives handed a petition to Malaysia's government-backed Human Rights Commission this week seeking its help to curb any further crackdown, said Muhammad Sha'ani Abdullah, a member of the rights watchdog. "If religious freedom is granted to (other Malaysian) minorities such as Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and Sikhs, then why are we insulted, denigrated, slandered and now threatened simply for practicing the beliefs of our forefathers?" Shiite representative Kamil Zuhairi Abdul Aziz wrote in the petition, which was also posted on Internet forums.
Islamic department officials who could comment on the issue were not immediately available Tuesday.
The Shiites face a stiff challenge because authorities have repeatedly defended their policies against non-Sunni teachings as necessary to preserve public stability and the integrity of Islamic teachings. Nevertheless, some Malaysian Islamic scholars support the right of Shiites to practice their beliefs.
The Shiites arrested recently have been released, but officials have said they might eventually be charged in Shariah courts with the crime of following the teachings of a deviationist movement, which is punishable by two years in jail.
Muhammad Sha'ani said the rights commission is working to arrange meetings between the Shiite community and government and Islamic affairs authorities to achieve "some peaceful agreement and mutual understanding."
"We are looking for a conciliatory solution, since there's no point in being confrontational," Muhammad Sha'ani told the AP. He declined to confirm whether the commission formally supports the Shiites' petition but added that "everyone should have the freedom to practice their own faith and religion."
Muhammad Sha'ani estimated there might be tens of thousands of Shiites in Malaysia, a country of 28 million people. Some have told rights activists over the years they are forced to hide their beliefs to avoid trouble with authorities and are unable to have formal places of worship, Muhammad Sha'ani said.
Malaysia's government has consistently denied it practices religious discrimination, saying the country is a model of Islamic moderation. However, some Malaysians have complained about policies that make it legally impossible for Muslims to convert to other religions and problematic for non-Muslims to build new churches and temples.