By BOB TEOH
The Catholic Church in Sabah has exposed a covert ploy to convert under-aged students to Islam in Labuan.
In a strongly worded letter signed by the four Roman Catholic bishops of Sabah, they complained that non-Muslim students at the Labuan Matriculation College between 17 and 18 years old, "are constantly subjected to various forms of harassment, ridicule and pressure to change their religion."
The residential college is under the matriculation division of the Ministry of Education and has an enrolment of 2,771 students from Sarawak, Sabah and Labuan. About half of them are Catholics and Protestants and the rest made up of Muslims other than 77 of them who are Buddhists.
According to the latest issue of "Catholic Sabah," the fortnightly newsletter of the ecclesiastical province of Kota Kinabalu, the letter dated 5 October last year was published two weeks later in the Herald, the Kuala Lumpur-based Catholic weekly newsletter.
The letter was jointly signed by Rev Datuk John Lee, who recently retired as Archbishop of Kota Kinabalu, Rev John Wong, Coadjutor Archbishop of Kota Kinabalu, Rev Datuk Cornelius Piong, Bishop of Keningau, and Rev Julius Dusin Gitom, Bishop of Sandakan.
Following the expose by the four bishops and publication of their letter, the education authorities responded by sending a senior delegation last month led by Dr Sariah Abdul Jalil from the Ministry of Education which included Sawan@ Rizal bin Amil, the director of the college and its deputy, Kamarudin Mansur, and five other key personnel from the college for a discussion with the Sabah Catholic Church to "thrash out certain issues" according to Catholic Sabah.
The two-hour meeting was described by the newsletter as "frank and cordial while affirming that the (Catholic) Church is committed to ensuring that the religious rights of all non-Muslims are not being eroded."
"The discussion on the protection of rights for the students also included the rights of the students to a safe and conducive learning environment, one that is free from harassment, intimidation and pressure," the newsletter said.
"The right to attend religious services without students losing out in additional classes or activities conducted by the college on weekends was also highlighted," it added.
The newsletter also said another highlight of the discussion was the right of the students to hold discussions, prayer meetings and services in the college and to form an association as provided for under the Educational Institutions (Discipline) Act 1976.
It also said the right to protection for non-Muslim lecturers and students who speak out against religious harassment was also raised during the discussions. Those familiar with such matters said in the past, any Christian teacher, especially those from Peninsular Malaysia would be given a 24-hour transfer notice from the Education Department if they raised such issues or complaints while serving in schools in Sabah or Sarawak.
When the issue first surfaced sometime in the middle of last year, the information was that an under-aged Catholic student and three more from the Sidang Injil Borneo (SIB) of Sabah were converted to Islam without the knowledge or consent of their parents. Subsequently, the number involved proved to be more.
The newly formed NECF-COSA or National Evangelical Christian Fellowship Commission of Sabah Affairs took up the case but did not proceed further due to lack of information. The matter was then referred to the Sabah Council of Churches. It was at this stage that the Catholic Church decided to conduct full scale probe into the matter that led to the four bishops issuing their joint letter together with a full report.
Part 2: What the bishops found out