Mon, Jan 23, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Malaysian ministers pull minorities memorandum

AFP , KUALA LUMPUR

Malaysia's non-Muslim ministers have withdrawn a controversial memorandum which called on Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to protect the rights of religious minorities, local media said yesterday.

Eight of the Cabinet ministers who submitted the unprecedented memorandum -- which critics say constituted a breach of protocol -- have withdrawn it, with only one signatory remaining non-committal, said the New Straits Times.

"As advised by the PM, submitting the memo is procedurally inappropriate. Following his advice, we have withdrawn the memo," Housing and Local Government Minister Ong Ka Ting said in a joint statement to the official Bernama news agency.

But Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Bernard Dompok defended the memo, saying: "To my mind, it is an attempt by myself and my colleagues in the Cabinet to try to help in pointing out what are the possible things that had to be done in order to settle some of the issues that are involved."

"I think that is all contained in the memorandum and I don't think there is anything offensive in that," said Dompok.

The ministers came under fire from several colleagues at Wednesday's weekly Cabinet meeting after they submitted the memorandum, which calls for a review of laws and the constitution where they infringe on minorities' rights.

Their unusual move followed the controversial Muslim burial of well-known mountaineer M. Moorthy last month, despite his Hindu wife's protests, which sparked outrage among religious minorities.

Moorthy was found to have converted to Islam by a Shariah court in which his non-Muslim wife had no say. A civil court later refused to rule on the religious court's findings.

Abdullah said he met several of the non-Muslim ministers at his residence over the weekend to convince them to retract the memorandum.

"At the meeting, I said they should withdraw the memorandum and they agreed," Abdullah was quoted as saying by the New Straits Times.

"When we are members of the same team there is no restriction on what we discuss and talk about. Use this opportunity to the fullest. We are all in one team, have one goal, one ambition and a way to discuss," he told Bernama.

On Friday he called for calm over the issue, warning that the Malaysia's political stability could be threatened if tempers frayed.

Religious minorities in mainly-Muslim Malaysia say non-Muslims are increasingly losing out in legal disputes to Muslims, whose matters are heard in Shariah courts in the country's dual legal system.

Malaysia's constitution decrees that civil courts have no jurisdiction on matters under Shariah courts.

Abdullah has ruled out any change to the Constitution, but said his government would review laws relating to religious conversion.

Religion in the multi-ethnic country is a highly sensitive issue and tensions have been rising, with Muslim groups opposed to any changes.

The majority of the Southeast Asian nation's population are ethnic Malays who are Muslim, but there are sizeable non-Muslim minorities of Chinese and Indian origin.

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