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By Aisha Hani Nor Azmir and Siti Nur Farah Khairil Azmin
KUALA LUMPUR, April 17 -- In recent times, stories and commentaries on racism and intolerance towards other religious practices as well as discrimination have often been hot issues in the community.
There are concerns that such negative elements will disrupt the harmony in society if not curbed immediately, as since the inception of Malaysia, the country's multiracial people celebrate and appreciate the cultural and religious diversity of the plural society, an important aspect in uniting the various communities.
The country will pay a high price if harmony and understanding between the communities fail to be preserved through the practice of tolerance and respect for individuals without discriminating against race and religion.
The responsibility of maintaining the harmony of a plural society is not easy or can be achieved in a short time but it must be borne by every Malaysian through the practice of noble values in community life.
For Minister in the Prime Minister's Department (Religious Affairs) Datuk Seri Dr Zulkifli Mohamad Al-Bakri, the attitude of openness in living in a plural society must be continued by every member of society.
“In Malaysia, Islam is enshrined as the religion of the Federation but freedom of religion has been practised for a long time. This right is enshrined in the Federal Constitution. Not just for Islam but also the rights of other religions as long as it does not disturb the peace, cause inconvenience or lead to harm towards any party,” he told Bernama recently.
He reminded the people to avoid prejudice, suspicion and anger in practising their religion.
Matters related to religious and racial sensitivities have become a national issue in recent times, with the latest happening on Wednesday when two security guards claimed to have been slapped, beaten and threatened at gunpoint by their employer for fasting during Ramadan.
The suspect was remanded for three days, and police said the investigation into the case was almost complete and would recommend to the Attorney-General's Chambers to charge the suspect.
Meanwhile, a legal and constitutional expert from the International Islamic University Malaysia, Associate Professor Dr Khairil Azmin Mokhtar, said the right to freedom of religion in the country should be respected as it is guaranteed in the Federal Constitution.
He said Article 11 (1) of the Federal Constitution protects freedom of religion and states that every person has the right to profess and practise his religion.
Clearly, this right protects the freedom of religion of every person regardless of the religion they follow and practise, and it also prevents anyone from forcing others to profess a religion.
“The act of preventing or forcing a person to abandon the precepts of his religion means denying the individual the right to practise his religion. This is clearly against Article 11 (1),” he said.
Khairil Azmin said this was also against the fundamental right to equality as stated in Article 8 of the Federal Constitution which protects equality and prohibits discrimination.
Article 8 states that all persons are equal before the law and are entitled to equal protection of the law, and there shall be no discrimination against citizens solely on the grounds of religion, race, descent, place of birth or gender.
He said religious rights were also recognised by the international community and all countries as well as the United Nations (UN).
"Freedom of religion is guaranteed by Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief," he said.
Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
Global Unity Network president Shah Kirit Kakulal Govindji opined that stern action should be taken by the authorities to prevent any case or crisis caused by individuals failing to respect other religions.
“The mentality and action of looking down on or insulting other religions should not exist in Malaysia. We need to respect and abide by the right to freedom of religion guaranteed in this country. The police are playing a good role at this time to address the matter from continuing or recurring in the future," he added.
In a statement, the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) also stressed the importance of respecting the freedom of individuals to exercise their claims or beliefs through religious beliefs, practices and teachings, and no one should be beaten, insulted or humiliated for doing so.