18 February 2021, The Tablet

Kidnapped pastor's wife speaks out as she takes legal action



Kidnapped pastor's wife speaks out as she takes legal action

Raymond’s wife Susanna (right) with Amri’s wife Norhayati (left) at a CAGED vigil in June 2018.
Open Doors

The wife of a Christian pastor kidnapped in Malaysia has spoken out about her determination to find her kidnapped pastor husband, and achieve justice.

Speaking to the western media for the first time, Susanna Koh, wife of disappeared Evangelical Free Church pastor Raymond Koh, told the Tablet that the Koh family will not stop until they find answers, and ultimately, find Raymond.

“Yes, sometimes I am afraid what they might be doing to him and how he is now.  However, I have to leave it to God and not worry myself sick.  God is able to look after him better than me,” she said.

 “I believe sooner or later, the truth will come out in one way or another. I am not worried because I know God is in control of everything. Even if Raymond is martyred, he is with God and is in a better place than me.  But if he is still alive then, I want to do all I can to get him out. I have had dreams and believe that one of these days soon, we will meet him again.”

In February 2017 Pastor Raymond Koh, a Malaysian convert to Christianity, was accosted whilst driving by three black SUVs and abducted in what has been described as a “military-style operation” involving at least 15 men. Since then his wife and family have had no contact with Mr Koh, and no knowledge of his whereabouts. 

This kidnapping coincided with three other abductions within a four-month period, that of Shia convert from Sunni Islam Amri Che Mat in November 2016, and of convert from Islam to Christianity Pastor Joshua Hilmy and his wife Ruth in the same month. An official inquiry by the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia has concluded that the Malaysian Special Branch, a special division of the police responsible for internal security and intelligence gathering, were behind the abductions. The commission called on the government to “Immediately take steps to clarify and separate the jurisdictions of the religious authorities and the Royal Malaysia Police.”

Mrs Koh has filed a lawsuit against the police and Malaysian government over her husband's abduction. Evidence and documents are being prepared for pre-trial.

Esther, Susanna and Raymond’s eldest daughter, described the day of the abduction saying: “I was very shocked, because I felt that something really bad happened, and I was very worried for my dad’s safety.”

She added: “These past four years have been like a mountain, like a huge mountain that is in front of me, that I'm not able to move. Maybe because of the police and how they have conducted the investigation.”

Elizabeth, Susanna and Raymond’s youngest child, said: “My experience is very different from my family because I was in the US when it happened. I thought, oh no! What can I do? But there was nothing I could’ve done, except to pray and hope that God’s hand is on everything.”

Norhayati Mohd Ariffin, in the photo above, is Amri Che Mat’s wife. His abduction on 24 November 2016 was similar to Raymond Koh’s abduction. He was born a Sunni Muslim, the majority faith in Malaysia, but later became interested in Shia Islam.

Raymond Koh started Harapan Komuniti (Hope Community), a charity that works with the underprivileged from all communities, irrespective of race and religion. These people include those with HIV/AIDS, recovering drug addicts, single mothers and their children, and homeless people. 

In Pastor Raymond’s absence, Mrs Koh, who was a housewife, has temporarily stepped to fill in the role as one of the directors of Harapan Komuniti. Other than assisting in some of the administration work in Inspirasi, KL, she continues to support the single mothers whom have been stakeholders of Harapan Komuniti through providing groceries and teaching them how to make jewelry.

Asked why she believed her husband had been targeted, Mrs Koh said: “I suspect that the allegations of proselytisation of Muslims were rumoured, saying that he was converting Muslims, through the non-profit, the NGO that he set up to work with the poor and needy…but there is no evidence of it.”

She went on to elaborate on the work she and her husband were doing: “My husband started a non-profit called Hope Community in 2004, after the tsunami hit South East Asia, we wanted to give [those affected] basic necessities and to help them through loss and grief.

“Later we open a reading centre for children and…opened two shelters for adults with HIV/Aids.

“We also helped single mothers with groceries and income generating projects, like how to cook, bake, sew and make jewellery.”

The trouble started, however, because their NGO worked across the divides between religious communities. Susanna described the moment that put her husband and their organisation in the cross hairs. “There was an event we organised in 2011, organised by the Hope Community for supporters and stakeholders” which included individuals from across the religious and ethnic communities of Malaysia, including Muslims and Hindus as well as Christians. 

“They were in a hall that was a church, in the middle of the program the religious department of Selangor…they came in and that caused the program to stop, it was a thanksgiving program and a fundraiser for the work, it was not a Christian meeting, there were no bibles there, no evangelism or anything like that, it was a dinner then reports of the work.

“The next day it was in front pages of the newspapers and then the accusations and allegations start coming in that Pastor Raymond was trying to proselytise Muslims.

“After that he received a letter with two bullets in a box and it was delivered to our house…I received a letter with white powder…I received a letter in red ink saying ‘Islam is stronger than Christianity’.” 

The common factor in the abductions were individuals who were seen as transgressing the boundaries between different religious communities, especially in relation to the majority faith of Malaysia, Sunni Islam. This reflects a growing extremism in Malaysian Islam, and an increasing closeness between the state and the Sunni religious authorities. 

Susanna described the changes she has seen in her own lifetime: 

“A few years ago there used to be a lot of tolerance for people of other races and religions, when I was in elementary school we mixed around with Muslims and Hindus, we eat each other’s food, it was not a problem.

“In the last 20-30 years we’ve seen a slide in the way that Muslims would stay away from non-Muslims’ homes and would not touch our food because of halal.

“People tend to be more religious now, more conservative in their outlook, maybe because of the influence that is coming from the middle east…people [are] being sent overseas for studies…they inevitably bring back some of those ideologies.”

Mrs Koh spoke of how her husband responded to the growing hostility and threats against their family: “Raymond was very calm, he seemed to have taken it and accepted it as part of persecution for those who want to obey God.”

She described the importance of the work they did for refugees and the poor to Raymond personally: “He was very compassionate to the poor and he came from a poor family and knew what it was like to suffer, what it means to be poor”. 

Susanna Koh has been fighting for the return of her husband, and answers from the government, since her husband’s disappearance. However, she has found Malaysian authorities tobe secretive, hostile and intransigent. On the day her husband disappeared she went to make a missing persons report but “instead of taking it they started interrogating me. After five hours I just told the policeman that the important thing is that the police go out there and find my husband... I’m not answering any more questions. He immediately stopped.

“Several times I had to put my foot down. The next day I said I was going to walk out of there, I’m not going to answer any more questions.”

Since that day the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia has ruled the disappearance as an action of the Malaysian special branch, citing CCTV evidence of the abduction, but the commission has no formal powers to force the government to take action on the matter. In 2019 the Prime Minister of Malaysia Mahathir Mohamad promised a fresh investigation into the abduction, but progress has been extremely slow over a year later. 

This has prompted Susanna Koh to take legal action herself. She said: “We filed a civil suit on the 30 December last year, we do not have any other option, we did not get any update from the police, the investigation is stalled, we did not get any report from the special task force that was formed to investigate further into the finding of the HRCM….it is already more than a year in which we have not heard anything.

“Our hope is that we will find some truth out of this court case because the HRC had limited power, they could not arrest or prosecute anyone, but in the Kuala Lumpur high court the judge will be able to ask for documents under the official secrets act, police will have to show documents and testify.

“Our hope is to find out what happened so families can have closure…that this will put pressure on the government.” 

Despite the atmosphere of growing extremism and intimidation of minority religious groups in Malaysia, Mrs Koh described a tremendous wave of support for her and her from across Malaysia as well as internationally: “From the beginning there was overwhelming response from the church in Malaysia, the Christian leaders were really united as one even though they were from different denominations. This is unprecedented in the history of Malaysia.

“There were candlelight vigils, thousands of people came, it snowballed into many other towns and cities in west and east Malaysia.

“I’m very encouraged by Christians all over the world who have listened to my story, and send me thousands and thousands of cards.”

She added: “It has been particularly difficult when it comes to birthdays, anniversaries and festive seasons, because we miss him. That's the time when the family gathers, so it's really been a struggle.”

The family still don't have firm answers about what happened to Raymond or where he is now, and have not had the chance for closure. They also still don’t know why he was taken, although it may have been related to accusations that he was sharing the gospel with Malay Muslims, which is illegal in Malaysia.

Susanna said that they still face a lot of challenges, intimidation, and harassment from the police. “They have been calling me and my son for questioning in the police station. It is only by God's grace that we were able to answer and even stand up for our rights,” she said. “We feel like we are part of a big family of God.”

She cited her faith as giving her the fortitude to continue her struggle with the Malaysian authorities: “I think it’s God’s strength and God’s grace, I keep a very close relationship with God, I spend time with god in prayer and reading the bible every morning, I listen to worship songs, I sing worship songs, I feel that really helps me, gives me the peace and the grace and strength to continue.”

The prayers and support of other Christians around the world has also been a source of encouragement. “We are very grateful and very touched by the love and concern of the Christians worldwide,” Susanna said. “We feel like we are part of a big family of God. We just want to say that we appreciate what they have done, their support, and (we ask) that they will continue to keep us in prayer until we see a resolution.”

 


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