Malaysia's Muslim prime minister broke new ground in national race relations yesterday, appearing for the first time at a Christian gathering to dismiss the notion that his country was governed as an Islamic state.
In an emotional speech, which followed a moving Christian prayer for his cancer-stricken wife, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi wiped away tears in front of dozens of priests and nuns as he appealed for religious dialogue and moderation.
"As prime minister of Malaysia, I am not a leader of Muslims but a Muslim leader of all Malaysians," the former Islamic scholar told a conference of the World Council of Churches (WCC), an umbrella group of most Christian denominations.
"Therefore I have a responsibility not just to my fellow Muslims, but also to Malaysians who profess other religions as well," he said before finishing his speech with a call for religious unity and quoting from the Bible.
Abdullah took the leadership of the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference last year and has tried to galvanize a group speaking for a fifth of humanity into more effective positions on Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But at home he runs a secular government ruling over a population where Muslims are a slim majority and the state religion is Islam. Almost half the population, with big ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities, follow other faiths or beliefs.
"I do not want to claim that there are no problems among the different ethnic and religious communities in Malaysia," he said.
"There are still very many things that we need to work on, but if the world ever needed a lesson in diversity and making it work, I am confident Malaysia can be a showcase," he said.
When asked after his speech why he had shed a tear, the prime minister said his mind had turned to all the suffering in the world.
But it was clear the prayer for his wife, led by a Malaysian bishop, had moved him before he rose to speak.
Abdullah's wife has been undergoing breast cancer treatment in the US.