(RNS) The government of Malaysia expelled a group of Singaporean tourists for chanting Buddhist prayers inside an Islamic prayer room where they erected a large Buddhist painting on the wall facing Mecca.
The government also revoked the permanent resident visa of the businessman who allowed the Buddhists to pray at his beach resort in Johor state, about 185 miles south of Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Muslim-majority Malaysia.
The government’s response is the latest in a series of crackdowns on behavior deemed disrespectful of Islamic traditions and beliefs.
A Malaysian human rights group, Lawyers for Liberty, protested the action.
“Lawyers for Liberty views with extreme concern the escalating religious intolerance in Malaysia, where in recent months several minor incidents of perceived insult against Islam have been blown completely out of proportion,” a statement by the group said.
Recent harsher punishments include the imprisonment of Malaysian citizens — Muslims and non-Muslims — who appeared in YouTube videos deemed to violate Islamic standards.
In one much-discussed incident last month, a couple that posted a Facebook photo of themselves eating pork during the Islamic month of Ramadan were arrested and charged under the Sedition Act. They pleaded not guilty.
The case involving the Buddhists gained attention after a video of the prayer session was posted on YouTube in mid-August.
The video shows the one-room building’s sign, above the front entrance, identifying the site as a Muslim prayer hall.
Inside the building, about a dozen men and women, dressed mostly in white, are heard peacefully chanting a Buddhist prayer while sitting cross-legged on the floor, led by a Buddhist monk wrapped in a maroon robe.
The camera zooms in on a large, colorful, Tibetan Buddhist “thangka” painting hung prominently in front of the group, on the wall which Muslims face while praying in the direction of Mecca.
The Buddhists do not appear to realize they were being filmed in the video posted on Aug. 10.
When villagers near the beach resort saw the YouTube video, they angrily sought out the tourists and took them to a nearby police station, according to the German news agency Deutsche Presse-Agentur.
The tourists complied with demands to leave the country and returned to Singapore.
On August 13, police detained the businessman who operated the resort while a local court investigated his alleged offense of violating a place of worship.
Malaysia’s Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said he then revoked the resort operator’s permanent resident visa because the Singapore resident was “insensitive to Muslims and Islam,” the Malaysian Insider reported.
Some Malaysian lawyers said the government acted prematurely by canceling the resort operator’s visa, because he had not been convicted in a court.
About 20 percent of Malaysia’s 30 million people are Buddhist, compared with a 61 percent Muslim population. An additional 9 percent are Christian and 6 percent are Hindu.
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