(New York) - The Malaysian government should respect the right of members of the Sky Kingdom to practice their beliefs, Human Rights Watch said today. Fifty-eight members of the religious group, including 30 women and five children, were arrested yesterday in the northeastern state of Terengganu by the State Religious Department, with help from the local police.
They will be charged today under the Shariah Criminal Offences Act for practicing a “deviant religion,” and if found guilty could be fined and jailed up to two years.
“The right to practice one’s religious beliefs freely is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” said Sam Zarifi, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division. “This right applies equally to members of unorthodox groups, not just adherents of the major religions.”
On July 18, a mob composed of 30 to 35 masked persons dressed in robes launched a pre-dawn attack on a six-acre commune commonly known as the “Sky Kingdom.”
The commune is inhabited by the followers of Ayah Pin (whose real name is Ariffin Muhammad), who claims to be the reincarnation of the holy figures of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam.
The mob reportedly tossed Molotov cocktails, slashed car tires with machetes, broke the windows of several homes, and partially scorched religious structures, including a giant teapot and an umbrella-shaped building.
Malaysian police have failed to arrest anyone involved in the attack.
“It’s the government’s responsibility to protect members of the Sky Kingdom from armed mobs,” Zarifi said. “Instead of harassing people who are peacefully following their beliefs, the police should be prosecuting those who attacked them.”
Government scrutiny and harassment of the group, which has been going on for years, has increased recently. In 2001, Ayah Pin himself was convicted and jailed for 11 months by the Kota Bahru Shariah Court for “deviant practices,” referring to his unorthodox religious beliefs.
Last month, the government identified 22 deviant sects of Islam and described Ayah Pin as the “top deviationist and its existence very challenging.” On July 3, 21 of Ayah Pin’s followers were arrested by religious and local police at the commune and charged for violating a fatwa (religious decree) that has ruled Ayah Pin’s teachings as deviant.
In April 2005, local authorities ordered the owner of the land which houses the commune to demolish religious structures on the property, including a large, concrete teapot, an umbrella-shaped building, a floating ark, and a vase which stores holy water for devotees, stating they were illegally built on agricultural land and violated the building code.