Mosque
Government authorities in Muslim-majority Malaysia consider only the Sunni denomination to be legal. – File Photo

KUALA LUMPUR: More than 200 Muslim Shiites including Iranians, Indonesians and Pakistanis detained in one of the biggest swoops on outlawed Muslim sects in Malaysia may be charged with breaching Islamic laws, an official said Monday.

Government authorities in Muslim-majority Malaysia consider only the Sunni denomination to be legal. Sunni Islam is the world's largest branch of the religion, followed by Shia Islam.

Islamic officials raided a shop house in the Gombak district in central Selangor state last week and arrested the group, who were allegedly followers of the outlawed Shia sect, said Nurhamizah Othman, a public relations officer at the Selangor Islamic Religious Department.

It was the largest swoop of outlawed groups in recent months, the department director, Muhammad Khusrin Munawi, told state media. He said the Shia doctrine is a threat to national security because it permits the killing of Muslims from other sects who are regarded as infidels.

Nurhamizah confirmed the comments.

Malaysia, a Southeast Asian country of 28 million people, is wary of religious sects that go against mainstream Islam, fearful that they may alter its image as a moderate Muslim nation. Malay Muslims make up about 60 percent of the population, while most of the rest are Buddhists, Hindus or Christians from the ethnic Chinese and Indian communities.

The arrests of the Shia followers have been slammed by some religious scholars, who accused Islamic authorities of becoming more hard-lined.

''Malaysia is trying to become a country a la Taliban that only allows one school of thought,'' said prominent Muslim scholar Asri Zainul Abidin.

''Even though I personally don't agree with Shia teachings and even frequently criticize and debate with them, I cannot accept the approach of the allegedly democratic Malaysian government in denying the people's right to practice their faith,'' he said.

Nurhamizah said the detainees have all been released on bail, except two Iranians. Most are likely to be charged in an Islamic court with following the teachings of a deviationist movement, which carries a penalty of up to two years in jail, she said.

Among those detained were lecturers, students of higher-learning institutions, lawyers and government employees, believed to have been operating in the area for nearly two years, she said. No further details were immediately available. – AP

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