Malaysia urged to punish Muslims over cross protest

KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) - Malaysia's government faced calls on Tuesday to take action against Muslim protesters who pressured a church to remove its cross, the latest example of rising Islamic intolerance that is fuelling religious tensions in the multi-faith country.

A group of about 50 protesters demonstrated on Sunday outside the small church in a Kuala Lumpur suburb, saying the Christian symbol above it was an affront to local Muslims, according to Malaysian media.

The cross was removed hours later and there were no reports of violence.

The incident caused outrage among Muslims and non-Muslims alike, amid festering anxiety over Islamic intolerance in the traditionally moderate country.

A group of more than three dozen high-ranking - and mostly Muslim - former civil servants and diplomats on Tuesday led the calls for action with a statement labelling the demonstration a "mindless act of hatred and intolerance."

"We call upon the authorities to take firm action against the protesters," said the group, known as the "G25" for the number of its founding members and which was formed last year to push back against intolerance.

Failure to act "will embolden religious extremists," they added.

Malaysia's ethnic Malay Muslim majority has largely coexisted peacefully with the country's sizable numbers of Christians, Hindus and other faiths under a system ensuring Muslim dominance.

But vocal Islamists and Malay nationalists have in recent years ratcheted up the rhetoric against a perceived "threat" from non-Muslims.

Their actions are often condoned by the Muslim-led government of Prime Minister Najib Razak, which has increasingly catered to its Malay Islamic base after 58 years in power as voter support shifts to a reform-minded opposition.

Last year, Malaysia's highest court upheld a government ban on a Catholic newspaper's longtime use of the Arabic word "Allah" to refer to the Christian creator, a case that heightened religious divisions.

The cross protest also has provided the first test of a toughened law against "seditious" speech.

Najib's government this month outraged the opposition and rights groups by amending the already feared Sedition Act to include stiffer penalties, saying the changes were needed to prevent speech that threatens religious harmony.

Critics have voiced suspicion that the government's real motive is to strengthen its leverage against opponents.

Najib's government already has hurled sedition charges at dozens of opposition politicians, activists, and other critics over the past year as it seeks to tighten its grip.

Some opposition members have called for the government to prove its sincerity on sedition by using the law against the Muslim protesters.

But despite the religious nature of the cross protest, it was unclear whether the demonstrators would face any action, with top government officials issuing contradictory statements.

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