Malaysia's government sought to defuse new religious tensions Monday following allegations that church leaders were conspiring to make Christianity the official religion in this Muslim-majority country.
Christian officials insist the accusation is a lie intended to create suspicion between ethnic Malay Muslims and religious minorities, but several Muslim activists have filed police complaints demanding an investigation into what they consider a threat to the position of Islam.
A string of religious disputes in recent years, often involving minority complaints of discrimination, has triggered persistent feelings of insecurity among both Malaysian Muslims and minorities about their religious rights in a country that prides itself on multiethnic peace.
The allegation by two anonymous political bloggers about a plot by Christian leaders received little attention until the country's leading Malay-language newspaper reported it on its front page Saturday under the headline "Malaysia a Christian nation?"
The Utusan Malaysia newspaper is owned by Prime Minister Najib Razak's Malay-dominated ruling party. It said dozens of pastors were believed to have pledged at a recent meeting to make Christianity the official religion of Malaysia and have a prime minister elected from the Christian community, which comprises about 10 percent of Malaysia's 28 million people.
Najib said late Sunday authorities will investigate the claim, but stressed the issue should not be sensationalized.
"Calm down until we get the facts," Najib said. "If there is anyone who tries to jeopardize national peace, we will not allow it to happen because what is important is national harmony."
Christian groups acknowledge there was a meeting last week, but say it was meant to honor some Christian pastors and discuss regular religious issues, not politics.
The accusations are "insidious, provocative and malicious lies" that have "the effect of creating religious disharmony, inciting hatred and heaping odium on Christians," Archbishop Murphy Pakiam, who heads the Catholic Church in peninsular Malaysia, said in a statement.
Opposition politician Lim Guan Eng warned Monday that the government would have to "bear full responsibility for any undesirable consequences on the Christian community in Malaysia" because of Utusan's report.
Tensions surged briefly last January when 11 churches suffered firebomb attacks and vandalism amid anger among some Muslims over a court verdict allowing minorities to use "Allah" as a translation for God. Some Muslims say the use of "Allah" in Christian literature could be used to convert Muslims, who comprise nearly two-thirds of the population.