Friday 16 November 2012

Court suspends government’s bid to acquire Kuantan church land

KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 16 — The Catholic Church today won the right to challenge the Education Ministry and Pahang state’s move to acquire a piece of prime land in the state capital Kuantan where the St Thomas Church is located, in the latest legal dispute pitting non-Muslims against the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition.

The Kuantan High Court also suspended the government’s bid to acquire the 0.7-hectare piece of land in Jalan Gambut, which also houses the SM St Thomas Catholic mission school, pending the outcome of the challenge that will be next argued in court next January 11.

“The court held that the church’s application is not frivolous,” church lawyer Benedict Wong told The Malaysian Insider when contacted.

“The court granted a stay of acquisition pending the full hearing of the judicial review against the Ministry of Education,” he said, adding the stay order was unchallenged by the senior federal counsel acting for the government.

Catholics form a sizeable number of the roughly 2.8 million Christian population in mainly Muslim Malaysia, having surpassed one million in 2010, according to the official Catholic Directory.

The Catholic Church has been tangled in several wrangles with the federal government over the past four years, which are seen to touch on their constitutional guarantee to worship with the tussle for church land coming on the back of a long-drawn out legal dispute over the right to publish the word “Allah” in a non-Muslim context.

The church had won the right to publish the Arabic word for “God” on December 31, 2009 but remains barred from doing so pending the Home Ministry’s appeal, which has yet to be given a court date for hearing.

The St Thomas Church dispute erupted earlier this year when the government moved to acquire the church land owned by the Catholic Church in an attempt to take charge of the public school built there.

The Pahang land office had gazetted the land for acquisition on May 24 shortly before the church was formally notified, English-language daily The Star had reported on August 29.

The church is arguing that the government decision to acquire part of the land, which is owned by the Titular Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur Rev Tan Sri Murphy Pakiam and his predecessors since 1905, is null and void as it infringes the fundamental right of freedom to practise the Catholic religion as guaranteed in the Federal Constitution.

“We need the land for our own use and expansion as we have a growing Catholic community and we are conducting our Sunday School classes in the classrooms,” St Thomas Church parish priest Rev Father Mitchel Anthony had said in a media statement obtained by The Malaysian Insider.

“Furthermore, the express condition in our land title is stated as ‘Tanah ini hendaklah digunakan untuk Tapak Gereja sahaja’, meaning the land is meant for church use only,” he added.

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