Malaysia and the Vatican agreed on Monday to establish diplomatic ties, a move seen by analysts as a bid by the Malaysian government to appease minority Christians in the mainly Muslim Southeast Asian country. Prime Minister Najib Razak is trying to mend the government’s relations with Christians who make up about 9 percent of the country’s 28 million after a rise in religious tensions ahead of general elections widely expected next year.
Religious tensions have risen in Malaysia following general elections in 2008 when the government recorded its worst performance after mainly Chinese and Indian non-Muslim minorities abandoned Najib’s ruling coalition, complaining of marginalization.
Unhappiness among the Christian minority has since been deepened by an ongoing row over the use of the word “Allah” by Christians to describe God, which led to attacks on houses of worship including several churches last year. “This will be seen as an effort towards reconciliation with Malaysia’s Christian community but will only work to ease the unhappiness of some… because some of the issues have yet to be resolved,” said James Chin, political analyst at Monash University campus in Kuala Lumpur.
Najib has tried to ease the anger by reaching out to Christian groups by providing assurances on their right to practice their religion. But some in his United Malay National Organization or UMNO, the linchpin of the ruling coalition, have cast this approach aside in a bid to woo Malay Muslims, a key vote bank who make up 55 percent of the country’s population. Malaysia’s general election is not due until mid-2013 but many expect Najib to call one as early as next year to profit from continued economic growth in the country.