ASHEVILLE, N.C. (BP) — Today (March 13) marks one month since the disappearance of Malaysian pastor Raymond Koh, whom family and friends believe was kidnapped because of his interaction with Muslim Malays.
Police have arrested a suspect in the kidnapping but have not released any information about Koh’s possible whereabouts.
On Sunday, March 5, hundreds of Christians around Malaysia held candlelight prayer vigils in solidarity with Koh’s family. Holding candles and signs reading, “Where is Pastor Raymond?” and “Let Raymond go,” the people prayed for the pastor’s safe return.
“We pray for his safe and quick release,” his wife Susannah Lieu Sow Yoke said as she broke into tears. “At this time we look to God and [hope that] he’ll be safe and we’ll meet him again.”
The morning of Feb. 13, while the 62-year-old pastor was on his way to a friend’s house in Petaling Jaya near Kuala Lumpur, three black SUVs surrounded his car and forced it to stop, within 100 meters of a police complex according to some reports. Nearby closed circuit TV cameras captured video of masked men getting out of their cars and walking toward Koh. A struggle appeared to take place in Koh’s car before all of the vehicles left the area. The whole incident, which reportedly took less than a minute, was posted to the internet by the Malaysian newspaper The Star and can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Bg2q3HRWhE.
The family offered a $22,500 reward for information on the pastor’s whereabouts but so far no leads have surfaced.
The news shocked Malaysians, with the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Sikhs and Taoists releasing a public statement that read, “News [reports of Koh’s] abduction have fanned fears across all religious divides in Malaysian society, as it is unprecedented for a man of faith to be abducted in this way in our peaceful, multicultural country.”
Koh led an Evangelical Free Church of America congregation in Malaysia for 20 years before starting the ministry Harapan Komuniti in 2004 to aid single mothers, drug addicts and people suffering from HIV/AIDS. It also holds an after-school program and English tutoring for students. Harapan Komuniti doesn’t discriminate against whom it helps, and many of the recipients of its aid are Muslim Malays.
In 2011, the Selangor Islamic Religious Department (Jais) raided a thanksgiving and fundraising dinner hosted by Harapan Komuniti at a Methodist church. The religious police were concerned Koh was trying to proselytize 12 Muslim Malays who had attended the dinner but ended up dropping the case for lack of evidence.
A friend of Koh, who wished to be anonymous for security reasons, said that after the 2011 raid, many Muslim Malays were angry with him. They sent a bullet in the mail to his home and stopped by his house to ask him to leave the country. They passed around his photo, calling on Muslims to kill him. In an interview with The Star, Koh’s son Jonathan said that since 2011 “we have been evading them. We have been moving around. We also received a lot of death threats on the internet. We have people following us.”
Police are investigating a link between the kidnapping and the threats against Koh. The arrest in the case reportedly followed a ransom demand.
Islam is the official religion in Malaysia, and Muslims are governed under state-administered sharia law. The Malaysian constitution protects the rights of non-Muslims (including Buddhists, Christians and Hindus) to practice their religion as long as they do not evangelize Muslim Malays. Yet Christians have begun facing other restrictions as well. In 2014, a court upheld a ban on Christians using the word “Allah,” the Malay word for God, in publications. With Islamic police eyeing any interactions between Malays and Christians, Malays are a largely unreached group with the Gospel.
In February, thousands marched in Kuala Lumpur in support of a bill that would impose stricter forms of punishment in the Islamic court system, which rules on religious and family matters for Muslims. Non-Muslims are tried in secular civil and criminal courts. Critics fear the bill could lead Malaysia into full implementation of the “hudud,” which includes punishments of amputations and floggings.
In early March, Jonathan Koh filed a second police report due to fears that his father had been murdered after no new information had been uncovered. Jonathan told The Star he believes his father was kidnapped “because he speaks what he believes in and he shares his beliefs with people. … He practices without exception everything that is written in the Bible.”
A petition through the White House’s “We the People” online system was initiated Feb. 24 by an individual identified as “M.G.” It must receive 100,000 online signatures by March 26 in order to qualify for a response from the White House. As of March 13 at 12:15 Eastern, the petition had been signed 4,239 times. It can be accessed at https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/pastor-raymond-koh-was-abducted-21317-kuala-lumpur-malaysia-authorities-have-been-very-slow-respond.
The petition states:
“Pastor Raymond Koh was abducted by at least 5 masked men on February 13th, 2017 near Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Since his abduction, the Malaysian authorities have been very slow to respond to his families [sic] requests for a speedy and forthright investigation. Moreover, they have not voiced any support for the Christian community in Malaysia or pledged to make sure such attacks stop. At this juncture, many of the religious freedoms that Christians have enjoyed in Malaysia and its multi-cultural atmosphere could come under increasing attack. I am asking that the White House and the US government help pressure the Malaysian authorities to use all their resources to find Pastor Koh and to further insure religious freedom within Malaysia.”
A similar online petition, now with 6,442 signatures, was started Feb. 24 at change.org. Once it garners 7,500 signatures, it will be delivered to Malaysian authorities, according to the change.org website.
The chairman of the Christian Federation of Malaysia, Eu Hong Seng, released a statement, World Watch Monitor reported March 2. “Members of the community pray the authorities would be able to locate Koh …. We ask the authorities to conduct a quick and thorough investigation into this incident and bring to justice its perpetrators,” Seng said.
“We pray for the success of law enforcement and investigating officers to locate the missing pastor and bring him to safety. The work of people of faith in such communities must be free from threats of violence and intimidation.”
The World Council of Churches’ general secretary, Olav Fykse Tveit, issued an open letter to “respectfully ask” Malay Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak to “to order an intensification of the investigation into the abduction of Pastor Koh to ascertain his whereabouts, and ensure his immediate release and return to his family,” as reported by The Star on March 10.
Tveit noted Malaysia’s religious freedom as guaranteed by its constitution but said the “disturbing incident” of Koh’s abduction has caused “deep anxiety and concern for the life and wellbeing” of Koh and has occasioned “fear and mistrust among the religious minorities,” The Star reported.