Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim yesterday accused the government of stifling non-Muslims' rights, as his party declared it has begun preparing for the next general elections.
Anwar, a former deputy prime minister and an ex-stalwart of the ruling party, also said that Malaysia's majority Muslims feel their own rights are threatened by greater clamor among minorities for protection of their rights.
"The worrying thing is the Muslims feel their position and their power in religious discourse is eroding. The non-Muslims feel they are being marginalized and discriminated against," said Anwar, the adviser to the opposition People's Justice Party headed by his wife, Azizah Ismail.
"We have come to a stage where it is considered unhealthy. The debate over ... religious issues has been contentious. There is a lot of unhappiness," Anwar said at a news conference during a dialogue that his party hosted to provide a venue for discussing the role of Islam in Muslim-majority Malaysia.
Anwar's backing of the minorities appears aimed at expanding the support base of his party -- which has its roots among Malay Muslims -- ahead of the next general elections, which must be held before 2009.
Azizah told reporters that the party is already preparing for elections.
"The mood is with us on the ground," she said, adding that there is a negative feeling against the government.
Anwar was sacked from his post as deputy prime minister in September 1998 following a fallout with then-prime minister Mahathir Mohamad over economic policies.
Anwar was arrested, tried for corruption and sodomy, and sentenced to a total of 15 years in prison.
He was released in September 2004 after he was acquitted of the sodomy conviction and had finished serving his sentence for corruption.
Anwar then called for a cross-cultural dialogue to try to ease the tensions between Malaysia's various ethnic groups.
He cited recent disputes over the faiths of two ethnic Indian men after their deaths.
Islamic authorities in both cases claimed the men had converted to Islam and should be buried as Muslims, despite arguments to the contrary by their families.
"I do appreciate the concern of non-Muslims," Anwar said.
"The action by certain religious departments and offices backed by government authorities ... to deny the rights of non-Muslims ... and to deny open public discourse has exacerbated the problem," he said.
In one case, an Islamic Shariah court allowed the Islamic Religious Affairs Department to bury Maniam Moorthy, a former Mount Everest climber, as a Muslim, ignoring his widow's insistence that he had never practiced Islam and had consistently celebrated Hindu holidays.
The other case was settled after Islamic authorities withdrew their claim over the body of Rayappan Anthony, an ethnic Indian Roman Catholic who had once converted to Islam, after his family proved he had returned to Christianity.
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