MALAYSIA – Abducted pastor raises fear of Muslim religious vigilantism
Several Malaysian pastors and activists have gone missing in Malaysia, raising worries especially among Christians of religious vigilantism.
Pastor Raymond Koh went missing on 13 February when he was exiting a highway in the leafy suburb of Kelana Jaya just outside of capital Kuala Lumpur. A widely circulated CCTV clip showed a convoy of black SUVs and motorcycles swooping down on Koh’s car and boxing it in by the side of the road. Several men then jumped out and ran to Koh. There was a flurry of activity and the convoy moved off — along with his car. It was the last time anyone saw him.
Mr Koh’s apparent abduction in just under a minute took place in broad daylight. It was witnessed by other drivers who recorded the incident and later lodged police reports. “The operation was very well planned. They knew who he was, where he was going, and probably had been tracking him,” said Koh’s son, Jonathan. “It was very professionally executed.”
Malaysian police investigated the video clip but have given few updates, other than they were pursuing three angles: that Mr Koh had “personal issues”, extremist groups were involved, or that he was kidnapped for ransom. However, no ransom demand was ever received. Koh’s family now believe it was no ordinary kidnapping, and that “religious elements” took the pastor in an act of “vigilantism or terrorism”.
Mr Koh runs a non-government organisation called Harapan Komuniti (Hope Community) in Kuala Lumpur, which helps the poor, single mothers, and drug addicts. In 2011, Raymond Koh’s organisation was investigated by Malaysia’s Islamic authorities following accusations that they were attempting to convert Muslims when they hosted a party with Muslim attendees at a church. Apostasy is an offence in Muslim-majority Malaysia. The allegations were later dropped but Koh remained a target of online rumours and even received two bullets in the post shortly afterwards, his family claims. More accusations have resurfaced with Mr Koh’s disappearance. Last week, several people lodged a police report against Mr Koh alleging that he tried to convert Muslim youths to Christianity in January. “He would never ask anyone to leave Islam,” says Jonathan Koh.”His alleged proselytism is not an excuse for kidnapping. If he did anything wrong, he should have the right as any citizen to trial.”
Now more reports of other missing Malaysian pastors and activists are beginning to surface and many remain unexplained:
- Peter Chong, a social activist and former city councillor, disappeared at the beginning of April near Kuala Lumpur.
- Joshua and Ruth Hilmy, a Pastor and his wife, were last seen near Kuala Lumpur in November.
- Muslim social activist Amri Che Mat was snatched from his car in November in Perlis state. His wife has denied allegations that he was spreading Shia Islam, which is banned by religious authorities in
This “unprecedented” spate of disappearances mystified Malaysia and raised security fears. There is no evidence these disappearances are in any way linked but in the absence of concrete information, many have come up with their own theories, including that the authorities may have had a hand in all this. Others believe religious vigilante groups may be responsible.
The Malaysian Bar raised “alarming doubts” about the country’s security, saying the “unprecedented mysterious” vanishings have led to “public perception and speculation… of forced disappearances”, using a term which usually refers to state-sponsored abductions. “It is shocking and outrageous that a growing number of Malaysians could inexplicably disappear and not be found for days, weeks and months.”
Koh’s disappearance in particular has sent a worrying signal to Christians. Hermen Shastri, general secretary of the Council of Churches of Malaysia said “It’s a question on our minds, and some churches are worried it may be a trend… where those involved in activities related to the poor [are targeted by] vigilante groups.”
Malaysian Muslims practise a moderate version of Sunni Islam, but in recent years the country has seen the rise of radical Islamist groups. Authorities have arrested dozens of suspected extremists and last year there was a terrorist attack by an Islamic State militant group.