In what is described as a historic gathering in Sri Aman this weekend, Iban Christians urge reconciliation with Putrajaya over the 'Allah' crisis.
They urged the federal government to resolve the crisis by entering into consent judgment with the church for the three cases pending before the courts.
To the Iban, the significance to this weekend's gathering is not missed. A communiqué issued at the end of two-day conference attended by over 2,000 of them late this afternoon by Archbishop Bolly Lapok pointed out:
"Today, we are gathered here in Bandar Sri Aman, a town whose very name means peace. This is indeed an historic assembly. History will surely judge us by what we say and do from today henceforth. We are on a prophetic threshold as children of God.
"We must be reminded of our cultural heritage as Christians that it is neither accident nor coincidence that Sarawak is the only Christian majority state in the country.
“Our status is one of divine appointment. It is not surprising then that Sarawak is known as the Bible belt of Malaysia."
The archbishop pointed out the fact that the church in the state has not for once demanded that the chief minister's post or that of the governor be picked from among Christians bears testimony to the extent the church is willing to go for the sake of reconciliation and peacemaking.
"We have and are doing our part in reconciliation. We feel that it is incumbent on the federal government to recognise our cultural heritage and our constitutional rights to practise our faith without undue interference and intervention."
"It has not been easy for us. But because by the grace of God we are defined as family with a call to action in reconciliation, we have been more than willing to find not only the call but also the means of being reconcilers, when our instincts and passions often lead us in the opposite direction. We have gone the extra mile for the sake of reconciliation."
Turn the other cheek?
In apparent response to some who have suggested Christians should 'turn the other cheek', he said in no uncertain terms:
"This is half-baked theology if turning the other cheek is tantamount to sending a wrong message to the provocateurs and extremists in political Islam that we are willing to abandon our calling to being peacemakers and reconcilers.
The extremists, he said, are a tyranny by the minority while the rest including peace-loving Muslims and non-Muslims, have been sucked into the spiral of silence only to become the suffering majority.
"To turn the other cheek in these circumstances is indeed to bear false witness to the Gospel of reconciliation itself. This we will not do," he said.
Ultimately, he added, it is for all Malaysians of goodwill to ensure that Malaysia is not hijacked by the deluded minority.
The archbishop also lashed out the judiciary by saying that "the insanity that we are facing has become so systemic that even the judiciary has seen it fit to abandon sound principles of jurisprudence and taken an unprecedented extra-judicial position that the use of the word 'Allah' to refer to God is not an integral part of the faith and practice of Christianity. This is an uncalled for, unnecessary and a gross insensitive provocation."
He concluded by urging the federal government to revert to the status quo by entering into consent judgments for the three cases still before the courts related to the use of the prohibited word.
Turning to history for reinforcement
The gathering signals the launch of a new movement known as Gempuru Besai Gerija Anglika Jaku Iban or the Great Gathering of the Iban Anglican Church.
The term itself is full of political significance for Ibans. The first Gempuru Besai was in Kapit in the mid-section of the Batang Rejang, the longest river in Sarawak.
It was here that the gathering of Iban chiefs lay down what is known as the 18-points to the Cobbold Commission as non-negotiable conditions for entering into the Malaysia Agreement for the formation of Malaysia in 1963.
The first of these conditions, like their counterparts in Sabah, is for complete freedom of religion in the two Borneo states.
The Sri Aman Gempuru Besai comes three months after the Gempuru Besai Raban Kristian Jaku Iban Malaysia (Gbkjim) which was held in Kuching where the police allegedly removed 'Allah' banners from the conference site.
The Gbkjim is a separate Christian body which was started 14 years ago but has increasingly become high profile over the 'Allah' controversy.
The Gempuru has also a knock-on effect in Sabah where a new Christian NGO Perpaduan Anak Negeri (PAN) Sabah or Native Solidarity has launched a six-month awareness campaign known as Mamangkis, a contextualised Christian version of an old native war ritual.
The birth of PAN is in the main due to the frustration among lay native Christians over the reluctance of the institutional church in Sabah to play hardball with Putrajaya over the 'Allah' issue as well as conversion to Islam by dubious means.
Many have come to Sri Aman this weekend with high expectations from the archbishop. There are even loud whispers to reviving the spirit of Rentap, the legendary Iban warrior who took on the might of the White Rajahs single-handedly when, both out-gunned and out-numbered.
The ruins of Fort Alice near the conference site in Sri Aman where Rentap made his last stand is reminder enough to stir brave hearts.
Archbishop Bolly Lapok is a native Iban and currently the Metropolitan Archbishop and Primate of the Anglican Church of the Province of Southeast Asia as well as the Bishop of Kuching.
Ordained in 1975, he has been the chairperson of the Association of Churches in Sarawak since 2009.
GIDEON LEONG is the non de plume of the writer, who is a religion researcher.