Think of a church, and you might imagine a building of grandeur and majesty. Mighty steeples that reach to the heavens. Stained glass windows and carved altars. Huge, imposing cathedrals.
Many Malaysian churches, however, house themselves in humbler abodes. While grand religious buildings occupying their own land do exist here, the majority of local churches are instead located in shoplots. Industrial and commercial venues are renovated and modified into houses of worship: it’s religious conversion of a different sort.
Re-purposing shoplots may seem like a strange choice. But there’s a reason why we see so many churches – and indeed, other religious groups – using shoplots as a place of worship.
In order to build a place of worship in Malaysia, religious communities first need to get approval to use the land for this purpose. But here’s the catch: only a limited amount of land is available and approvals are not guaranteed.
That’s why church groups find themselves turning to any kind of venue available to support their growing congregations.
Yet by doing so, churches also find themselves in a predicament. By operating in shophouses and other venues that were not built as places for religious worship, they can get in trouble with local authorities.
Recently, a church in a commercial building in Taman Medan came to public attention after a group of protestors demanded that it removed its cross from the building’s exterior. The church leaders agreed to remove the cross. However, MBPJ subsequently said the church was illegal because it does not have approval to operate as a place of worship.
This “illegal” status was then refuted by Selangor executive councillor Elizabeth Wong. Wong said that the state committee allows churches to operate in commercial premises or offices without a permit, as long as the committee has been notified.
According to Wong, the church is not illegal since this committee ruling has been applied since 2008. At time of writing, however, the church’s status is still not clear with one state government official calling it “technically unlawful”. When contacted by Poskod.MY, MBPJ did not wish to comment on the matter.
The confusion over the Taman Medan church is just the latest in a string of such cases. For years, Malaysian churches have stood in a grey area when it comes to permits: faced with either a lengthy bureaucratic process or a possible future threat of eviction.
When even the state government and local council can’t agree on what’s legal – what does that mean for churches and their congregations?
The property search
Nestled deep in the middle of a housing estate, in a row featuring both restaurants and tin workers, is a shoplot church led by Pastor Jacob*. First established in 1981, the church has a growing parish, with up to 200 people often attending their weekly Sunday services.
It is certainly a very nice church, with a wide hall and meeting rooms now used for bible study. It’s hard to believe that once, this space was used for commercial purposes, including the sale of rice and other groceries.
“We were originally from another church, which was also a shoplot. A group of us were sent out by the church elders to find a new place to worship. That’s how churches grow. And we looked for a place to rent,” Pastor Jacob said.
“A group of us were sent out by the church elders to find a new place to worship. That’s how churches grow. We looked for a place to rent.”
“Some leaders drove around to find some suitable places, and we prayed about it. And we felt God was telling us that this place was good. And it was available, and it seemed suitable, so we moved in.”
Originally, Pastor Jacob merely rented the premises. Over time, however, his church grew, and the pastor ended up buying the place (as well as surrounding units) to accommodate the growing church congregation.
“Your congregation is growing. What do you do? They can’t just go to any church in town,” the pastor said.
Pastor Jacob registered his church with the Registrar of Societies, giving it the right to hold land. He said, however, that he would only apply to convert the land’s usage from commercial to religious if it was insisted upon, as he felt the process was complex with little guarantee of success.
In the Pastor’s experience, local authorities usually allowed shoplot churches to function quietly, as long as they did not receive any complaints from neighbours.
“I think that allowing churches to function in shophouses, as long as they don’t disrupt anyone, is a good idea,” Pastor Jacob said. “Now you have new estates coming out. And usually, developers have some land put aside for religious use. But there are so many denominations. Who do you give it to?”
He added that even if churches managed to get land from developers, they then faced problems with its development.
“You may need the resources to both buy the land and build the church at the same time,” Pastor Jacob said. “Which is difficult. A far easier option is to find a shoplot, rent first, grow your congregation, and then let it become independent when it becomes big enough.”
The church under the law
Churches must first register with the Registrar of Societies for the right to hold land. They must then operate on land which has been designated for this specific religious purpose.
Under the National Land Code, development of any areas require the drafting of a development plan, which governs and determines the use of land in a particular area. These include draft plans, which normally decide the pattern of the area’s land usage, setting it into categories such as residential, commercial, or industrial.
According to National Evangelical Christian Fellowship (NECF) former Secretary-General Eugene Yapp, not enough land is being allocated for non-Muslim religious purposes, which ultimately has to be shared between five main religious groups, namely the Buddhists, Christians, Taoists, Hindus and Sikhs.
“The Federal Constitution allows for the existence of religious groups to practise, profess, and to a certain extent, propagate their religion,” Yapp said, referring to Article 11, which covers freedom of religion. “On the other hand, there is municipal law that says that you can’t house something in a place not according to its designated use. This then presents a problem for churches in Malaysia.”
“The government must be willing to allocate land that is sufficient to meet the needs of all religious groups. If they don’t make this their practice, religious groups who have the money will find an alternative, which are shoplots or other options.”
“The government must be willing to allocate land that is sufficient to meet the needs of all religious groups.”
Another option, he said, was for churches and religious groups to apply under the National Land Code to convert their land use from commercial to religious purposes. This however, came with problems of its own.
“The Land Office may be hesitant to do so, particularly if there are complaints from your neighbours, Muslim or otherwise. If not all your neighbours consent, then you will have problems,” Yapp said.
Within Petaling Jaya, approval from MBPJ will only be obtained after vetting by the sustainable development committee under the planning department. The approval then needs to go through the state executive committee.
“The process can be tedious. For example, if you’re a church and you’re renting the premises, how are you going to apply?” Yapp pointed out. “You are not the owner. And if you’re renting, it suggests you’re only there temporarily. If you’re a tenant, what owner would let you convert the land when you might go away in five years?”
Churches under fire
In early 2014, the Kepong Chinese Methodist Church was threatened with eviction and demolition after it planned on changing its land use from institutional centres (kindergarten) to place of worship (church) without a Development Order.
The church had been operating for years before the issue of its legality was raised – it had moved into the premises in the year 2000. After receiving an eviction notice from DBKL in 2013, it applied to change the use of the land from that of a multi-purpose hall and kindergarten to religious use.
Yet before the changes could be made, the church received another eviction notice – and then had to appeal for an extension, involving the Ministry of Federal Territories’ committee on non-Muslim places of worship.
According to pastor-in-charge Kok Chin Ngin of the church, they have not heard from the local council or the state government on their application since. The land use remains officially that of a kindergarten, although the church is now registered to operate.
The case of the Kepong Methodist Church shows the lengthy bureaucratic process that face churches – even when they attempt to get approval for changing their land use.
Under the law (the Federal Territories Planning Act 1982 and the Town and Country Planning Act 1976) the local government has the authority to evict anyone from premises not used in accordance with their designated purpose.
The occupier can also be fined, with penalties in Federal Territories capable of going up to RM50,000 and RM500 per day upon continued non-compliance (section 26 and 29 FTPA).
Sikhs in Subang Jaya and USJ prayed in a shophouse for over a decade because of the difficulty of getting land approval for a temple.
In an earlier case, the Damansara Utama Methodist Church (DUMC) in Section 13 had its status placed in doubt after JAIS raided a thanksgiving dinner there, suspecting that Christians were proselytising Muslims. It was then found that the church only had approval to operate on that land as a “community hall”.
At the time, MBPJ councillor Mak Khuin Weng pointed out that local authorities do not consistently enforce land usage rules. “There are food courts and even a college operating on land for industrial use. So you can’t say you want to take action against DUMC but not against others,” the web portal FMT quoted Mak as saying.
Other religious communities face similar problems. For example, many Sikhs in Subang Jaya and USJ prayed in a shophouse for over a decade because of the difficulty of getting land approval for a temple.
The Subang Sikh Association of Selangor (SSAS) first applied for approval to use a plot of land for religious purposes in 2003. However, this application was rejected. A fresh application was made in 2009 and approved in 2012. Then, the land was gazetted for use as a non-Islamic place of worship in 2013. The building permission for the building was finally approved in 2014.
Faith for the nation
According to the 2010 census, almost 40% of Malaysia’s population practises a non-Islamic religion and 9.2% practise Christianity.
“The fact of the matter is that the state is not able to cope with the proliferation of churches in its various denominations and groups,” said Reverend Dr Hermen Shastri of the Council of Churches Malaysia (CCM).
“CCM maintains that whatever type of space or building is used by churches, they abide by local council laws and be sensitive to their immediate neighbours.”
The Reverend added that whether a church was registered or unregistered, they are “exercising their right to worship as provided for in the Federal Constitution” and therefore are recognised by CCM.
Yapp, who held the post of Secretary-General of National Evangelical Christian Fellowship (NECF) from 2013 – 2015, tells me that there is a lack of a clear mechanism covering issues of land conversion and the usage of buildings for religious purposes.
“Perhaps what is really needed is for various parties, such as the town councils, authorities and the churches to sit down together to sort out their problems, and come up with proper, open mechanisms and processes so that religious groups have the right to house their places of worship to practise and profess their religion.”
Asked his hopes for the future, Yapp said he would like to see more room for churches and religious groups to practice their religions more freely. According to him, this included the freedom to house places of worship without the fear of being evicted or shunned.
He shared examples of several churches in Federal Territories and Johor which had received notices of eviction, a major concern of his.
“I think it’s important for any developing country aspiring to become a developed nation to have freedom of religion thriving. As of now, it is not. It is being restricted. We need to let freedom of religion thrive if we are to minimise social hostility,” Yapp said, emphasising that it was important for everyone to respect and honour one another’s religion.
He added that tensions between faiths were visible recently, with the country having problems with several parties saying things that offended others.
“We don’t want to see these sort of things. I think I can speak for all religions when I say that all we want is to be able to live in peace and harmony,” Yapp said.
Research by Orion Chan, Ling Low, Mabel Ho and Syahir Ashri.
*The name has been changed at interviewee’s request.
Read this next: Valley of Hope: Visiting Sungai Buloh’s Former Leper colony
Read this next: Lee Kuan Yew: Singapore’s Mercurial Father
More from Poskod.MY: The Trouble with Tapirs