KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Malaysian police Wednesday freed nine Christians who were arrested and held overnight after a university official mistakenly accused them of trying to convert Muslim students.
The nine were released without charge, but their arrests could deepen frustrations among religious minorities who feel authorities in this Muslim-majority nation increasingly ignore their rights in favor of Islam.
Proselytizing of Muslims is forbidden in Malaysia, although the reverse is allowed. Muslims, who comprise nearly two-thirds of Malaysia's 28 million people, are also not legally permitted to change religion.
A security officer at the Universiti Putra Malaysia handed the nine suspects to police late Tuesday because he believed they were giving Christian pamphlets to Muslims, said Zahedi Ayob, the police chief of Sepang district near Kuala Lumpur.
Police found they were only submitting questionnaires to other Christians for a research project about religious understanding, Zahedi told The Associated Press. Five were students at the university while the others were friends from Hong Kong.
"I think it was all a misunderstanding by an overzealous security officer," Zahedi said.
Cases of non-Muslims preaching to Muslims are rare in Malaysia. Penalties differ in various states, but most provide for prison terms of at least two years.
Malaysia's Constitution guarantees freedom of worship for minorities, who include Christians, Buddhists and Hindus. But Muslims who try to convert are often sent by Islamic authorities for counseling and rehabilitation, and some have also been imprisoned for apostasy for up to three years.
The arrests came amid a separate religious dispute involving Roman Catholics who complained about two Muslim men who posed as Christians and took Communion at a church service.
The men were researching a magazine article about unsubstantiated rumors that churches were converting Muslim teenagers. Police said Tuesday they were investigating whether the men had caused religious disharmony – a crime that carries a prison term of up to five years.
Minorities say their right to practice religion freely has been increasingly threatened by Muslim authorities in recent years. The government denies any discrimination.
In an ongoing court battle, the Roman Catholic Church and the government disagree over a 2007 order banning non-Muslims from interchanging "God" and "Allah" in their literature. The government says it confuses Muslims. Christians say the ban is unconstitutional.
Minorities also complain about the occasional demolition of their places of worship. In a separate case Wednesday, the High Court ruled that Islamic authorities in northern Kelantan state unlawfully destroyed a church in 2007.
State officials had said the church was illegally built, but the court ruled that the Christian villagers there should receive financial compensation.
Associated Press writer Sean Yoong in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this story.