Amalina (not her real name) cradled her seven-week-old baby in her arms as she listened to a Christian activist quote biblical scriptures before an audience comprising mostly Malay, Muslim, tudung-wearing women.
By Amalina’s side were her four other children, ranging from eight to 18 years old, whom the 42-year-old brought along to the talk in Taman Tun Dr Ismail, Kuala Lumpur, yesterday, titled “Exchange Verses: A night of exchange between Christians and Muslims”.
The talk was promoted as an intimate gathering for people to listen to four activists – two Christians and two Muslims – share how their respective religions inspired them to embark on volunteerism.
“I used to work at a public relations agency, handling luxury accounts like expensive watches, with no care for the poor, the vulnerable, the marginalised,” activist Debbie Loh shared with the enrapt audience.
“One day, I was reading the Bible, and a particular verse struck me: ‘God raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap’.
“At that point of time, I was thinking, this is my God, who cares about the poor, and I am so far from that. So I began to pray to God, and that made me care more for the people.”
Not a single Muslim in the audience flinched at Loh’s deeply Christian story. On the contrary, her anecdote was met with encouraging applause, even from the small children who were there with their parents.
The warm, peaceful scene was a stark contrast to the controversy from last weekend’s seminar at Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) Malacca, titled “Ancaman gerakan pemurtadan Kristianisasi” (Threat of the Christian proselytisation movement).
The seminar had purportedly touched upon attempts to convert Muslims to other religions, and to strengthen the “akidah” (faith) of Muslims.
It has seen the likes of Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar defending the participation of a Special Branch officer at the forum.
It was also not the first anti-Christian seminar UiTM hosted.
In May last year, UiTM was criticised for holding a seminar at its Shah Alam campus, where participants were told that undercover Christian preachers were sent to Malaysia to convert Muslims.
While Muslim authorities do not seem to think such a seminar is an issue, for people like Amalina, they are the exact antithesis to what she thinks Muslims like her children should be learning.
“I don’t agree with any sort of anti-Christian forum,” the tudung-wearing, English-speaking housewife told The Malaysian Insider.
“Have you met any Christians who have tried to propagate their religion? I haven’t.”
The diminutive mother, who was educated in Australia, said she regularly exposed her children to the teachings of other faiths, and has taken them to temples and churches in order to turn them into “global citizens”.
It was why Amalina was not perturbed by Loh and Friends of Kota Damansara chairman Jeffrey Phang’s anecdotes of their Christian-inspired activism at the forum.
“My children are used to it. I expose them to different faiths because I want my children to grow up not only as proud Muslims, but to be able function normally no matter where they end up in the world.
“I don’t see how it conflicts with my religion. After all, Allah created people into different groups so that they can learn from one another,” said Amalina, referring to Chapter 49, Verse 13 of the Quran.
Lecturer Shahreen Nayan, 40, an attendee at the forum, said the anti-Christian seminar made such interfaith programmes even more necessary.
Like Amalina, she disapproved of any seminar targeting other religions in a negative manner, and stressed that those who believed in such methods did not represent the entire Muslim community.
“With anti-Christian seminars out there, all the more reason we need interfaith forums like ‘Exchange Verses’,” she told The Malaysian Insider.
“We don’t want just one narrative out there. The moderates have to come forward. Seriously, not all of us Muslims are that bad.
“We don’t always want to focus on the differences between each faith.”
She said she had always been interested in attending interfaith programmes since she was a university student, and that these forums needed to be encouraged.
Organiser Justin Johari Azman said the event was planned about three months ago but kept low-key in light of the controversy over the anti-Christian seminar.
He said he did not want people to misconstrue the talk but was adamant that it not be cancelled as he still wanted the objective to be fulfilled.
“We did this because we want people of different faiths to share their experiences and find a common ground,” said Justin.
Other presenters who spoke on Islam and activism were social activists Syed Azmi Syed Alhabshi and Universiti Teknologi Malaysia lecturer Khalina Khalili. – December 18, 2015.