They sat saying the rosary in the Melanau language. Outside, mosquitoes buzzed in the still, humid air as dusk settled. The murmur of prayer ended. Unexpectedly voices burst into song: "Teach, oh teach us, Holy Mother, how to conquer every sin…" they belt out with gusto.
It was October — the Month of the Holy Rosary. Catholics living along the Oya River in Sarawak on the island of Borneo are devout. Each evening they gather at a different parishioner's house for prayer, comfort and support.
Malaysia is changing. Islamic fundamentalism and fermenting discord in the Malaysian mainland is reaching deep into the heart of Borneo.
The Melanau people of Sarawak, numbering some 124,000, according to government figures, are predominantly Muslim. In Dalat however, they are mostly Catholic and they are feeling the strain.
There is a desire to protect their identity and family values. They have been Catholic for generations but they are struggling to transfer this to their children.
Their main worry is that their children will abandon their faith, convert to Islam, marry and adopt a different lifestyle.
Unlike in neighboring Indonesia, Malaysia prohibits marriage between Muslims and non-Muslims. Non-Muslim Malaysians must convert to Islam to marry a Muslim.
"They convert because of marriage, but sometimes because it brings privileges like jobs or scholarships," said Erma, a young civil servant in the city of Kuching.
Rose Sute, a grandmother involved in community work at St. Bernard's Church by the River in Dalat, spoke of a crisis of faith among young people.
"They easily convert and our community is getting smaller. We try to teach them to be strong, to keep their faith but we cannot stand in the way of love. We have to let them go," she said.
"Tragedies have happened. Parents may be against their children converting for the sake of marriage, the young may be weak and get frustrated… there are many cases," she said, referring to cases of suicides among young people.
The Melanau Catholic community in Dalat is around 6,000 strong. Christians and Muslims live in the same town, albeit in separate areas. Still, there is integration between the two communities.
Muslim young people attend a computer skills training center run by the parish, for example.
"We're all family," said Rose. Her friend, Pauline Philip Ruby, who works in the parish house, nodded in agreement. Both have Muslim relatives.
Pauline and her husband constantly worry about the youngest three of their eight children. The triplets are finishing school and are at an age where they could be influenced by the changes happening in Malaysia, they said.
"We all have relatives who are now Muslims. We visit one another during festivals. We mourn together as a family when there is a death and celebrate each other's festivals," Pauline said.
For Rose, life in the village is changing. "Respect for our ways is dying. The young reject the old. They think we are out of touch. They are influenced by what they see and hear when they leave to study or work in the peninsula," she said.
"They lose touch with their Sarawakian roots and when they return they bring back different values … they are aggressive and angry. It is not our way," she added.
Jobs are scarce and youth migrate to the towns in search of work. Some houses stand empty.
"The parents died, their children left and never came back. Even my children have gone," said Robert Napi, a retired catechist.
Recent federal government policies like the banning of the use of the word "Allah" by Christians have rattled the community. But after protests, it remains unenforced in the two east Malaysian states.
"Teachers from the peninsula bring their values and try to change us. They try to influence our children and even to convert them," said one mother, who requested anonymity.
"They have stopped for now but there are other ways they are trying to take away our identity. For example, in one school, students must wear the traditional Malay dress once a week and everyone knows the costume is meant to identify with Islam," she said.
But, despite their troubles, the villagers can rely on their faith for inspiration. The Marian hymn they were singing contains the lyrics: "How to love and help each other/How the prize of life to win." They strive to keep a tolerant and universal outlook in the face of adversity.
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