Malaysian tribe wins damages for church demolition, hails it as religious, land rights victory

By Eileen Ng (CP) – 5 days ago

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — A Malaysian court has awarded damages to indigenous villagers after ruling that authorities unlawfully demolished their Christian chapel, their lawyer said Thursday.

The members of the small tribe in southern Johor state known as the Straits People took the case to court after authorities tore down their new chapel just 10 days before Christmas in 2005 on grounds that it was built on state land.

The High Court ruled Wednesday that authorities had trespassed on their land and failed to honour a pledge made in 2001 to list the site as customary native land, lawyer Steven Thiru said. It awarded damages to the 51 villagers, with the amount to be decided later.

"They are elated because they feel they have been cheated. This is a victory for their freedom of religion and for their land rights," Thiru said.

It was not immediately clear if Johor authorities would appeal the ruling.

The Straits People is one of 18 ethnic tribes collectively known as the Orang Asli, which means "Original People" in the Malay language. The Orang Asli comprise some 140,000 people, who are among Malaysia's poorest citizens.

While Malaysian laws do not recognize or protect indigenous customs and rights to land ownership, the tribespeople argue they have a right over the land that they have lived on for decades.

In May, members of the Temuan tribe won a 15-year court battle and were awarded 6.5 million ringgit ($2.1 million) in a landmark settlement with highway authorities for forcibly taking away their ancestral land for development.

The Orang Asli, many of whom have converted to Christianity, have also complained along with other ethnic minorities that their religious rights are not respected by the government. Authorities deny any bias.

In 2007, another Orang Asli church in northeast Kelantan state was torn down. Villagers have also challenged the demolition and won damages in court. Authorities appealed the decision and the case is still pending.

Another tribal church under construction in Kelantan faces demolition after authorities ordered villagers to stop work on it.

Pastor Moses Soo, whose Christian group is helping the tribe build the church, said villagers have defied the stop-work order.

"They are still building it. They feel it is their right to their use of land and their right to practice their religion. The church will be ready by the end of October," he said.

Officials at the Department for Orang Asli Affairs refused to comment.

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