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updated: 3/19/2014 9:38 AM

Missing plane boosts ethnic unity in Malaysia

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  • An office building is illuminated with LED lights displaying "Pray for MH370" next to Malaysia's landmark Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Wednesday, March 19, 2014.

      An office building is illuminated with LED lights displaying "Pray for MH370" next to Malaysia's landmark Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Wednesday, March 19, 2014.
    Associated Press

 
Associated Press

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- The imam cupped his palms before his face and invited the congregation to pray. "Oh Allah, return to us those who are lost. Oh, Allah, grant safe passage to MH370," he said.

The prayer was not unusual. The setting was.

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Gathered in the courtyard of a shopping mall in a suburb of Kuala Lumpur, the Muslim religious leader was followed by a Christian reading from the Bible, then a Buddhist monk, a Hindu and finally a Taoist priest echoing the imam's pleas before hundreds of worshippers in a largely Muslim country where religious intolerance has been on the rise.

The baffling mystery over the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 with 239 people on March 8 has united Malaysia, a nation of numerous ethnicities, as never before in recent memory.

Tuesday night's interfaith ceremony would have been inconceivable 11 days ago in the country of 28 million people where religious differences and bigotry have often been on open display. For Malaysians the sight of non-Muslims bowing respectfully as Imam Hilman Nordin said prayers from the rostrum was an incredible step toward unity. While there have been interfaith prayers before, they have always been without a Muslim representative.

Malays, who account for about 60 percent of the population, are almost exclusively Muslim. Chinese, who are Buddhists, Christians and Taoists, represent about 21 percent, while Indians, who are Hindus, Sikhs and Christians, are about 7 percent.

Muslims have been at loggerheads with Christians and Hindus in recent years, and some sermons last month identified Christians and Jews as enemies of Islam. Hard-line Muslims have called for the burning of Bibles and in January firebombs were thrown into a church compound. A few years ago, a group of Muslims stomped on the severed head of a cow outside a Hindu temple. Cows are sacred to Hindus.

"In the shared sadness of loss, the tragedy has revealed and reinforced a strong sense of community," said Bridget Welsh, a political scientist from Singapore Management University. "If anything, this is a silver lining of the tragedy."

Some of the enmity rises from the right of non-Muslims to use the word "Allah." The government and hard-liners say Allah -- the Arabic word for God -- is exclusively for Malay Muslims. The Roman Catholic Church has challenged that assertion in an ongoing court case which many Muslims see as a threat to the dominance of Islam. Most indigenous tribes in Borneo are Christians and speak only the Malay language in which the word for God is Allah.

The case remains unresolved in court and religious tension continues to fester.

In January this year, Islamic authorities seized more than 300 Malay-language Bibles from the office of a Christian group because they used the word Allah.

This row over a single word has blackened the country's image for religious tolerance and hardened the longstanding sense of alienation among ethnic and religious minorities who feel discriminated against by decades of affirmative action policies that benefit Malay Muslims in business, jobs and education.

But such differences have been set aside -- at least temporarily -- following the disappearance of the plane after it took off from Kuala Lumpur for Beijing on March 8. A massive sea and air hunt by 26 nations continues.

Thousands of Malaysians of all ethnic backgrounds were also touched by the tweets of Maira Elizabeth Nari, daughter of the chief steward aboard the plane.

"It has been more than 100 hours. Where are you?" she wrote in one tweet. One of her 40,000 followers encouraged her, saying, "Keep on praying, pray to Allah."

At the interfaith vigil at the Curve in the Kuala Lumpur suburb of Damansara Perdana, leaders of several religious groups went onstage to offer their prayers. Many in the crowd wore white T-shirts with the words "Unite for MH370" and held white balloons with handwritten messages of hope.

"Today is a rare occasion for us to bring unity, peace and harmony," said a Buddhist monk who chanted a prayer for the plane's safety.

"Please come back home. We are all in tears waiting for you, brothers and sisters," said Shantha Venugopal, the Hindu representative. The Taoist priest beseeched God for divine intervention while the Sikh leader pleaded for a closure to the plane's disappearance.

Teh Su They, whose Global Peace Foundation co-organized the gathering with local singer Reshmonu, a Hindu, said the tragedy showed that "deep inside the heart of every Malaysian, we care for one another, that we are one family. In this difficult time we need to come closer to support each other."

In a statement, Reshmonu said, "For one night, we forget our divisions and stand united for ... faith, compassion and love."

"Because of this tragedy, we stand as one and respect one another's religion. I see this as Allah's wisdom behind this tragedy to reunite all Malaysians," said Nurul Arfarina Nasir, a 28-year-old housewife wearing a headscarf and holding a white balloon.

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