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The rich history of the Church in Malaysia

Malaysia has always been a crossroads of cultures and civilisations. From a simple Malay fishing village and sea-faring people, Malacca became the greatest emporium in the east. Trade flowed from Venice, Cairo, Alexandria across the Red Sea and Persian gulf; the North West Coast of Africa, the Indian continent, Ceylon, Burma to China and the Far East.

By 1504, there was already much detailed information on Malacca both in Portugal and Spain. In the second half of the 15th century, 84 languages were spoken in Malacca.

Among the foreign traders and diplomats who frequented the ports in Kuala Kedah and Malacca were probably Nestorian Christians. Traces of Nestorian settlements have been found dating back between the 7th and 14th century in north Sumatera and in the region.

The first Catholic priests landed in Malacca in 1511 as military chaplains to the Portuguese. Malacca in its new role became a stop-over for the thousands of missionaries who from here spread the faith to South and Far East Asia. Till today, small Christian communities are found in these places due to its missionary zest. Malacca holds a special place in the history of the Church in this region.

A Chronological Summary of events in Malaysian State & Church History

God’s spirit has always been present and active in the meandering history of peoples and nations, drawing us to the fullness of time and life in Him.

7th-14th: Numerous small sultanates which are strongly Hindu, exist at river mouths. The Sri Vijaya Empire extends its great influence to the region. 1403: A prince from Sumatra, Parameswara, founds Malacca. He converts to Islam and takes the name of Sri Maharaja Mohammed Shah. 1511: Arrival of Portuguese led by Admiral Alfonso D’Alberque and the first chaplains. The Portuguese capture Malacca for its well-known spice trade. 1545-52: St Francis Xavier preaches in Malacca. In 1557, Malacca is raised to a suffragan see (deputy diocese). 1641: Occupation of Malacca by the Dutch, who suppress Catholicism. The bishops and priests flee to Timor. 1786: Sir Francis Light takes over Penang from the Sultan of Kedah. 1809: The reopening of the College General in Penang and seminarians from all over Asia come to be trained. 1819: Sir Stamford Raffles takes residence in Singapore. 1824: Anglo-Dutch Treaty is signed and Holland exchanges Malacca for Indonesia. In 1826, Penang, Province Wellesley, Malacca and Singapore become the Straits Settlement under British rule. 1852: The Sisters of St Maur or the Infant Jesus sisters (IJ) and the La Salle brothers sail over to found Christian schools in major towns in Pen M’sia. The sisters also begin orphanages. 1864: The Chinese tin miners settle at the confluence of the muddy Klang and Gombak river mouth, the beginning of Kuala Lumpur. 1874: The Treaty of Pangkor marks the direct British rule over the Malay states. The sultans maintain religious sovereignty. 1881: Arrival of Mill Hill Missionaries in Sarawak & Sabah who work actively with the indigenous peoples. End 19th - 20th: Massive immigration of Chinese and Indians who are invited to work in the tin mines, rubber plantation and railways by the British. 1942-45: Second World War and the Japanese occupation. Schools are closed; and the people suffer. 1948-60: Communist insurrection. 1st Feb 1948, the Federation of Malaya Government in formed. 1955: Creation of two dioceses, Kuala Lumpur and Penang. Ordination of first local Bishop Dominic Vendargon. 1957, 31 August: Malaya gains independence, and the first Prime Minister is Tunku Abdul Rahman. 1962: Pope John XXIII calls for the renewal of the Church and opens the 2nd Vatican Council. 1963, 16 September: Creation of Malaysia with Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak. 1965: Singapore breaks with Malaysia and becomes an independent republic. 1969, May 13: Racial violence and killings recorded in the aftermath of the elections. A state of emergency is declared and curfew imposed. 1970: Introduction of New Economic Policy and quota systems. 1970: Discrimination of Christians and expulsion of Catholic & Christian missionaries from Sabah. 1972: Creation of new diocese of Malacca-Johor, making a total of six in Malaysia (three in west, and three in east Malaysia). 1973: Malaysia becomes the first ASEAN country to recognise China. 1970-75: Resurgence of communist activities in the north and in urban centres. 1974: Ordination of the first permanent deacon. 1975-80: Arrival of Vietnamese refugees (boat-people) puts a stress on the country. 1977: First Catholic Charismatic Convention in Ipoh. 1976: Month-long Aggiornamento (in Penang) for Bishops and priests of West Malaysia. A vision for the Peninsular Malaysia Church is formulated. 1977: First Catholic Charismatic Convention in Ipoh. 1979: Asian Bishop's Institute for Social Action meets in Kuala Lumpur for dialogue on religions. 1977-81: Number of Muslim activists arrested by the authorities. 1981: Gathering of all priests from West M'sia to review the Aggiornamento of 1976. 1983: Formation of Malaysian Consultative Council on Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism (MCCBCHS) for dialogue and to represent their interests with the authorities. There is a Constitutional upheaval with the powers of the King being amended. 1984: Formation of the Christian Federation of Malaysia consisting of the Catholic, Protestant and Evangelical churches. 1985: Malaysia’s own Proton Saga car. 1986: Peninsular Malaysia Pastoral Convention (PMPC I) includes Ministry to Youth as part of the core needs, besides poor, inter-religious, unity, formation & community building. 1987: Arrest of opposition leaders, Church and NGO workers under the Internal Security Act (ISA), Operation Lallang. 1989: Sarawak’s efforts at renewal with Eucharistic Congress, Bible Year and Bible Congress. 1990: Signature campaign against imposition of Islamic law on non-Muslims. 1991: Racial and religious polarisation issues in the election campaign. Vision 2020 is announced. 1995: Churches in Sarawak request the state to allow other faith education in schools besides Islam. 1996: PMPA II gathering reviews and reaffirms Aggiornamento 1976 & PMPC 1986. There is a call for systematic and strategic planning and implementation. 1998: Arrest of Deputy Prime Minister and start of Reformasi movement. 1999: The Great Jubilee Year of redemption is declared open by Pope John Paul II. 2000: Formation of Malaysian Human Rights Commission or SUHAKAM. First joint Community Spirituality retreat among Bishops, priests, religious and laity. 2001: First Peninsula Malaysia Young Catholic Leaders Forum or LEAD 2001 organised. PMPA III held at Kuala Lumpur re-emphasises BECs.

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