KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia - Lighting a torch under one of Malaysia's most volatile issues, the spiritual leader of the fundamentalist Islamic opposition said people who vote for it in upcoming elections will go to heaven and implied government supporters are destined for hell.
Nik Aziz Nik Mat, a 72-year-old cleric held in high esteem by millions of ethnic Malay Muslims, was quoted in a newspaper report Saturday, days after election officials warned candidates not to bring religion into the campaign at the risk of disqualification.
Religion and ethnicity are multicultural Malaysia's most sensitive issues, and contributed to race riots 30 years ago that still resonate in today's society. Political parties remain largely divided along ethnic lines, though both the opposition and the government are in multi-ethnic coalitions.
"It is stated in the Quran that those who rally behind Islam are also those who want to live under divine laws laid down by Allah," Nik Aziz was quoted as saying in The Star newspaper. "And naturally, they will go to heaven for choosing an Islamic party, while those who support un-Islamic parties will logically go to hell."
Anuar Bukhary, Nik Aziz's press secretary, told The Associated Press the quotes were accurate.
Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's secular government claims the fundamentalists use Islam for political gain and foment extremism, while the opposition charges that UMNO is immoral and not Islamic enough.
Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who retired in October after 22 years in power but has vowed to help Abdullah win the election, responded to the claim by taunting his old foe.
"I want to ask Nik Aziz, when is he going to heaven to see if those who voted for the party made it there?" Mahathir, 78, was quoted as saying by the national news agency, Bernama.
"If it is true, then rogues and rapists will surely go to heaven if they join the party and vote for it," Mahathir said.
Abdullah has called elections for March 21. Days before the announcement this week, the head of the Election Commission, Abdul Rashid Abdul Rahman, warned that laws state that candidates who promise favors from God could lose their parliamentary seats.
However, the opposition and government have fought political debates on the issue before, and no punitive action has been taken.
Both Nik Aziz's Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party and Abdullah's United Malays National Organization compete for votes from ethnic Malay Muslims, who are about 60 percent of the country's 25 million population.
Malaysia is one of the Islamic world's most progressive and dynamic countries, with the Muslim majority living peacefully alongside large ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities who are mostly Buddhists, Christians and Hindus.
In recent years, the fundamentalists have gained influence in the conservative Muslim-dominated rural areas in Malaysia's north and east. They control two of Malaysia's 13 states and aim to claim more after this election.
But national power is almost certainly out of reach, with Abdullah's 14-party coalition holding a huge Parliamentary majority.
The Islamic party wants to make Malaysia an Islamic state and advocates a Taliban-style criminal code, including execution by stoning - policies that push non-Muslims and liberal Muslims into supporting the government.
Parent site: "The World At Your Fingertips"