Malaysian Muslims protest against what they say were attempts to evangelise Muslims, in Shah Alam, outside Kuala Lumpur October 22, 2011. About 2,000 slogan-shouting Malaysian Muslims gathered near the capital on Saturday to denounce alleged Christian attempts to convert Muslims, widening a religious rift that could cost Prime Minister Najib Razak minority votes in upcoming polls. (Photo: Reuters)

SHAH ALAM – Despite heavy publicity over the week, barely 5,000 Malaysian Muslims turned up at the 100,000-seater Shah Alam Stadium near Kuala Lumpur yesterday for a rally to denounce alleged attempts to convert Muslims.

The rally, led by right-wing non-governmental groups, comes amid an escalating row over accusations of covert conversions among Muslims and a raid on a Methodist church, which has divided Muslims and angered ethnic minorities.

Muslims are not legally permitted to change their religion in Malaysia. Attempts to convert Muslims are punishable by prison terms.

“Some people say they (non-Muslims) work hard to spread their religion and that there is nothing wrong with apostasy. These are the voices which we want to drown out with our gathering,” Mr Yusri Mohamad, chairman of the organising committee, told the crowd.

The four-hour gathering was peaceful but the low turnout had organisers begin the rally at 3.40pm, more than 90 minutes after the scheduled start, the Malaysian Insider reported.

While the Himpunan Sejuta Umat event drew fewer supporters than the July Bersih rally for electoral reform, analysts said it would have ramifications for Prime Minister Najib Razak in the next general election. Polls are not due until 2013 but many expect Mr Najib to call one early next year.

Mr Khoo Kay Peng, a political analyst, said the protest would only further stoke fears among minorities and would not garner new Malay support for the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition.

“For people already voting for Barisan Nasional, the gathering is preaching to the converted as there will always be fears that outspoken Chinese will erode Malay rights. Barisan needs instead to move to the centre and bridge the gap,” he said. — AFP