Malaysia cracks down on Islamic sect

TVNZ, New Zealand/December 22, 2006

Malaysia has outlawed a new Islamic sect that authorities fear could be a front for the revival of a cult banned in the 1990s as heretical, officials said on Friday.

About 16 members of the "Rufaqa" movement will be charged before the sharia, or Islamic, court over the next few weeks for spreading deviant teachings, an Islamic religious official in the central state of Selangor said.

"We have to act since they are trying to revive Al-Arqam," said Fakhrul Azam Yahya, a spokesman for the Selangor Islamic Affairs Department, referring to the cult banned in 1994.

Punishments could range from fines to jail terms or both if the court finds the men guilty, he added.

The government suspects Rufaqa, or "Comrades" in Arabic, could be a cover for the revival of the Al-Arqam movement, banned after winning 10,000 followers and up to 100,000 sympathisers, including some government officials.

Founder Ashaari Muhammad spent two years in jail, but soon after his release formed the Rufaqa Corporation, which runs multi-million-dollar businesses from restaurants to schools, with operations in Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia and Jordan.

Followers of Al-Arqam claim supernatural powers, from averting death to the ability to bring down an aircraft simply by pointing at it.

Other bizarre teachings include a promise to absolve members' sins by transferring them to Ashaari, who is believed to be able to defer death, and the belief that an Islamic messiah from the east will appear just ahead of a prophesied doomsday.

This teaching is offensive to many Muslims, who say it contradicts the Koran.

Officials of Rufaqa have denied the allegations.

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