SINGAPORE - The Jewish and Muslim communities in Singapore enjoy a harmonious and mutually respectful relationship that has been and remains strong, leaders from both faith groups said on Wednesday (March 10).
A group of Muslim leaders visited the Maghain Aboth Synagogue in Waterloo Street in the morning to reaffirm the bonds of friendship between their communities shortly before the authorities announced that they had thwarted a planned attack on worshippers at the synagogue. The synagogue, built in 1878, is the oldest in South-east Asia.
Mufti Nazirudin Mohd Nasir, Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) chief executive Esa Masood and the head of the Harmony Centre, Ms Liyana Rosli Asmara, met Chief Rabbi Mordechai Abergel and Jewish Welfare Board president Nash Benjamin and vice-president Reuben Khafi, where they also made a shared commitment on behalf of the Muslim and Jewish communities of Singapore to reject all forms of extremism, radicalism and violence.
The Internal Security Department (ISD) said on Wednesday that it had detained 20-year-old Amirull Ali, who had made plans to stage knife attacks outside the synagogue to kill Jews leaving congregational prayers.
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Rabbi Abergel stressed that the man's plans have not affected the good relationship between Jews and Muslims here.
"We enjoy an amazing relationship with our Muslim friends. We break bread together, we meet for social events. We have regular meetings, we talk to each other regularly. So I really, really don't think this is something that's going to affect our relationship, not in the least," said Rabbi Abergel.
Dr Nazirudin said in a statement: "We all agree that our peace and harmony is a blessing and gift we must never take for granted nor compromise. Our commonalities are much stronger than any differences."
"To this young man, and other self-radicalised individuals before him, we say this dishonours and desecrates the very faith you claim to defend. This goes against the very heart of our faith and the grain of our Quran - which speaks in no uncertain terms of the sanctity of places of worship such as the synagogue and the mosque," he added.
"There should be no place for such beliefs or ideologies, and we will continue to do everything we can to protect our community and our young from such radical and extremist ideas."
Mr Esa told reporters that Jews and Muslims are proud to share a common Abrahamic heritage. And as Singaporeans, community members here should protect each other and build a safe home together, he added.
Muslim leaders are also very saddened and troubled by Amirull's plans, Mr Esa said, as he said that all sacred spaces must be protected and kept safe.
He noted that the Muslim community had faced a similar threat last December, when the ISD detained a 16-year-old self-radicalised Singaporean student who planned to attack two mosques in Sembawang and Woodlands and kill Muslims there.
Mr Esa warned of the dangers of extremism and radicalisation, and stressed that such approaches go against the grain of what religions stand for.
"It gives quick and misguided answers for every plight, and justifies violence and killing of innocents for every cause. There is no place for such beliefs and we can do more to protect our community and our young from such radical and extremist ideologies," he said.
The leaders said that they were thankful that the attack by Amirull was averted, and Rabbi Abergel called for the bonds between the two faiths to be strengthened.
He said this should continue to trickle down to the grassroots level, like how different groups from mosques visit the synagogue to learn more about the Jewish faith.
"It is important at this moment to realise that we're all in this together. It's important to strengthen the bonds of friendship that we have with our communities," he said.
Amirull was reported to have been motivated to conduct his attacks after being enraged by the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Mr Esa said that while it is in human nature to be affected by global conflicts, there is a need to avoid being taken in by radical groups with their own political agendas, and to look for long-term and peaceful solutions that are productive.
Muis has set up the Rahmatan Lil Alamin Foundation to collect donations from people who wish to channel the grief that they feel when it comes to global crises, he noted.
"Similarly, this is how we will channel our efforts to very constructive solutions (and) working with humanitarian agencies on the ground who can provide real relief and real solutions to those who are affected by such crises," he added.
"Acts of violence further fuel hate and add to the conflict," he said.
In a Facebook post on Wednesday, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong said that Amirull's case was a sobering reminder on the importance of remaining vigilant and to not take Singapore's social cohesion for granted.
"We are fortunate to call multiracial and multi-religious Singapore home. I sincerely hope everyone can come together to protect our diversity and our shared space. We must not allow isolated incidents to sow disharmony in our society," he said.
Singapore Jewish community has deep roots stretching back to 1819
The Jewish community in Singapore can trace its roots all the way back to 1819, when merchants from across Asia arrived to trade.
Some of the earliest records indicate there were nine Jews in Singapore in 1830.
The earliest Jewish families lived near Boat Quay, where the first synagogue was built in the 1840s along what is today Synagogue Street.
As the community grew, the need for a new place of worship arose, and construction of the Maghain Aboth Synagogue in Waterloo Street began. It was completed in 1878, and is the oldest standing synagogue in South-east Asia.
A second place of worship, Chesed-El Synagogue in Oxley Rise, was opened in 1905.
Both buildings were gazetted as national monuments in 1998. Today, they remain at the centre of religious activities for the community, which numbers around 2,500, comprising Singaporeans as well as expatriates from across the globe.
Since 2007, the community has met for activities at the Jacob Ballas Centre, next to the Maghain Aboth Synagogue.
A large number of the early Jewish immigrants hailed from India and the Middle East, and for many, their main language was Arabic.
During the Japanese Occupation, many Jews who remained here were detained by the Japanese at Changi Prison and then in Sime Road.
The community has contributed significantly to Singapore, and its members include first chief minister David Marshall, who helped establish what is today the Jewish Welfare Board.
Other prominent figures include philanthropist Jacob Ballas, the first chairman of the Malayan Stock Exchange and then the Malaysia and Singapore Stock Exchange; prominent surgeon Yahya Cohen; and lawyer Harry Elias, who set up the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme.
Jewish leaders have been active in the Inter-Religious Organisation and other religious harmony efforts, and the Jewish Welfare Board said on Wednesday that the community has always felt safe in Singapore, unlike in many other countries.