A Malay Muslim, he was one of our sons’ classmate and a good friend. He was often over at our house. I remember one occasion when he joined us for a meal. We made sure the meal was scrupulously pork free. We normally say grace before meals and we asked if he was ok with it. He was fine. After we prayed he said Muslims also prayed before meals and he went ahead to pray. We then tucked in to a meal marked by good conversations and laughter.

I remember this with fondness and a tinge of sadness when I read that Muslims are no longer allowed to pray with non-Muslims in unity prayer meetings.

Muslims in Malaysia are not allowed to participate in interfaith prayers either in the form of mass silent prayer or through separate rituals at an event.

This was explained by the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (Jakim) in a letter on Aug 7 in response to a query from the Department of National Unity and Integration (Perpaduan).

Jakim said it was decided at a 2006 national-level meeting between all state fatwa councils that Muslims should not instruct non-Muslims to pray according to their individual faiths as prayers should only be made to Allah SWT.

To be fair, the ban is aimed at interfaith events. It doesn’t seem to cover private interactions between individuals, like our son’s friend sharing a meal with us. And I can see how some Christians may be happy with a similar ruling for Christians. After all, if we pray with folks from other faith traditions at the same event does it imply some parity between the different faiths?

Whatever your views on interfaith prayers, the timing of the announcement is unfortunate. It comes at a time when tensions arising from differences in race and religion are on the rise in Malaysia, putting stresses on a Malaysia which at the best of times has to work so hard to maintain racial and religious harmony.

Followers of Jesus Christ should be at the forefront of building bridges between the many different communities in Malaysia. The biblical vision of human flourishing is multi-ethnic. Here is one description of the new heavens and the new earth.

And they sang a new song, saying:

“You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased for God
persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth.”

(Revelation 5:9b–10, NIV)

Indeed, the inclusive nature of the people of God was one of the realities of the early church. In a letter that defended the gospel, Paul reminds us that communities of the gospel are communities where:

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28, NIV)

Followers of Jesus understand that true unity can only be found in Christ. Hence we need to continue to share the gospel of Christ. But we also need to show the fruit of that gospel by ensuring that our churches are truly inclusive. We have far to go on that count.

As citizens of Malaysia, Malaysian Christians should also work towards the trajectory of the Kingdom in our commitment to work towards a Malaysia that is truly multiracial and one that respects all people whatever their faith traditions.

As we approach another Malaysia Day (September 16), Malaysian Christians will choose to respond to hate with love and while we may need to make statements about our commitments in the public square, I suspect the way to work towards a truly multiracial and multireligious country is one friend at a time, one meal at a time.

God bless Malaysia.