The small, white, nondescript wooden Protestant Church in Sabah (PCS) church in the Dusun village of Layung Maliau, in Sabah’s remote Pitas district, was again packed for its Sunday service yesterday.
It has been filled to the brim since the first Sunday of 2014.
But what was strange in this revival of faith in this dirt poor village of 100 people is that a third of the worshippers are “Muslims” – or are supposed to be.
“They think they had converted us (to Islam). They are wrong. We are still Christians and our faith in God has not changed,” housewife Lenney Masangal said, explaining the presence of “Muslims” at the church.
The 41-year-old mother of three was one of 33 people from the village who claimed that they were tricked into converting into Islam for a mere RM100 on New Year’s day.
They were part of a group of about 64 people, including children, from three villages in Pitas – Kampung Layung Maliau, Dowokon and Sosop – who had allegedly been converted.
Their trouble had apparently started on New Year’s Eve.
A fellow villager, on returning from Pitas town, called everyone to his house to announce the “good news” that “some people from Kuala Lumpur” are giving them financial assistance.
“We all went to his house to hear how we could receive the financial assistance,” farmer Maison Bilu said.
When told that the amount would be RM800 per person, Maison was beyond excited.
The 44-year-old lost all sense of reasoning as he – there are seven of them in his family – was only thinking of how much he would be getting.
“Nobody asked who were these people giving us the financial assistance. We were only told ‘people from Kuala Lumpur’. We didn’t even ask the reason they are giving us this money,” Maison said.
“Everyone just wanted the money. That’s all.”
Getting RM800 was like winning the lottery for the villagers who depended on subsistence farming to survive.
Maison plants tapioca, vegetables and maize to feed his family.
Like everybody else in the village, he does not plant cash crop.
The village is still without electricity and running water.
Those who could afford it have generators to light up their houses and power the all-important television sets.
To get to the village, one will first have to take a two-hour drive from Kota Kinabalu to Kota Marudu.
From Kota Marudu, its another two-hour drive up one of the state’s “dog’s ears” to Sungai Penipak, a major river in Pitas.
From the river, it’s another long and exhausting walk of an hour or so on the dirt road left over by the company that used to harvest timber in the area.
The road is strewn with fist-sized boulders taken from the Penipak river and typical of logging roads, many sections are steep.
When it rains, the road is a slippery quagmire. When it’s dry, it’s dusty.
It is so remote that every one of their elected representatives in the last 50 years had never set foot in the village.
Neither had Muslim missionaries.
“We have no income of any kind. That RM800 is a lot more than BR1M (Bantuan Rakyat 1Malaysia). Everybody was understandably excited,” Maison said.
“To get it was also easy. We just have to give our name and MyKad number to that neighbour of ours. No questions asked.
“However, we were told we have to go to Pitas town hall the next day (New Year’s day) to receive the cash.”
So early the next day, the 33 villagers excitedly trudged down the dirt road for the 3km New Year walk to the river.
Once they crossed the river via a suspension bridge, three cars were waiting to take them to the town hall.
“When we reached the hall, we were told to go to the ‘masjid’ (mosque) instead,” Maison said.
“At the mosque, we were all treated to refreshments and then they asked for our MyKad. We were then asked to sign a form. I don’t know what the form was as I could not read or write. No one explained to us what the form was.
“All of us were illiterates. I never went to school and neither did my wife,” he said of his wife Nafsiah Momin.
“So I put my finger print on the form.”
What baffled Maison was that the person who helped him put his finger print on the form did not take the form from him.
“He gave me a large envelope and inside the envelope were several smaller, coloured envelopes.
“I did not immediately open them to check what was inside as we were then told to stand in a line across the room.
“A man then asked us to recite some words after him. I didn’t understand a word he said as the words were all foreign to me.
“At the end of it, the man told us that we have converted to Islam and we are now all Muslims.
“I was shocked. I quickly dragged my wife and children out of the mosque to ask ourselves what was going on,” Maison said.
He said when he later opened the smaller envelopes, he found RM100 in the yellow envelopes and RM50 in the green envelopes.
It was only later that he found out that the RM100 were for adults and the RM50 for children.
The form that Maison still had with him was later passed to a church elder who informed him that it was a consent form and he had consented to be converted to Islam.
To 41 year-old Jusman Masid, the whole episode made him feel sad and cheated.
“Yes, RM800 is a very large sum of money to me. I felt very happy to think that I was going to get such financial assistance.
“But only to find out later that I had been deceived for RM100 and covertly converted, I really felt cheated.”
Jusman’s wife Lenny said the so-called conversion meant nothing to all of them.
“We are still Christians. We still go to church every Sunday and the church has been packed since this incident.”
After more than two weeks of mental agony, Lenny said she felt “happier” now as Christian non-governmental organisations in the state had engaged a lawyer to seek legal redress and see how the villagers could get out of their religious predicament.
“I had never thought of being a Muslim and never want to be one.”
The villagers, led by the neighbour who told them of the assistance, Makadan Masabu, 54, had lodged a police report over the alleged covert conversion.
They urged police to investigate their claim of covert conversion so that they not only retain their faith as Christians but to warn others who might be similarly tricked. – January 20, 2014.