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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) -- The imam cupped his palms before his face and invited the congregation to pray. "Oh Allah, return to us those who are lost. Oh, Allah, grant safe passage to MH370," he said.
The prayer was not unusual. The setting was.
Gathered in the courtyard of a shopping mall in a suburb of Kuala Lumpur, the Muslim religious leader was followed by a Christian reading from the Bible, then a Buddhist monk, a Hindu and finally a Taoist priest echoing the imam's pleas before hundreds of worshippers in a largely Muslim country where religious intolerance has been on the rise.
The baffling mystery over the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 with 239 people on March 8 has united Malaysia, a nation of numerous ethnicities, as never before in recent memory.
Tuesday night's interfaith ceremony would have been inconceivable 11 days ago in the country of 28 million people where religious differences and bigotry have often been on open display. For Malaysians the sight of non-Muslims bowing respectfully as Imam Hilman Nordin said prayers from the rostrum was an incredible step toward unity. While there have been interfaith prayers before, they have always been without a Muslim representative.
Malays, who account for about 60 percent of the population, are almost exclusively Muslim. Chinese, who are Buddhists, Christians and Taoists, represent about 21 percent, while Indians, who are Hindus, Sikhs and Christians, are about 7 percent.
Muslims have been at loggerheads with Christians and Hindus in recent years, and some sermons last month identified Christians and Jews as enemies of Islam. Hard-line Muslims have called for the burning of Bibles and in January firebombs were thrown into a church compound. A few years ago, a group of Muslims stomped on the severed head of a cow outside a Hindu temple. Cows are sacred to Hindus.
"In the shared sadness of loss, the tragedy has revealed and reinforced a strong sense of community," said Bridget Welsh, a political scientist from Singapore Management University. "If anything, this is a silver lining of the tragedy."
Some of the enmity rises from the right of non-Muslims to use the word "Allah." The government and hardliners say Allah -- the Arabic word for God -- is exclusively for Malay Muslims. The Roman Catholic Church has challenged that assertion in an ongoing court case which many Muslims see as a threat to the dominance of Islam. Most indigenous tribes in Borneo are Christians and speak only the Malay language in which the word for God is Allah.
The case remains unresolved in court and religious tension continues to fester.
In January this year, Islamic authorities seized more than 300 Malay-language Bibles from the office of a Christian group because they used the word Allah.
This row over a single word has blackened the country's image for religious tolerance and hardened the longstanding sense of alienation among ethnic and religious minorities who feel discriminated against by decades of affirmative action policies that benefit Malay Muslims in business, jobs and education.
But such differences have been set aside -- at least temporarily -- following the disappearance of the plane after it took off from Kuala Lumpur for Beijing on March 8.
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