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Abduction

Someone kidnapped Pastor Raymond Koh three years ago. His family still wants answers but is trusting God

Abduction

Susanna Koh, whose husband Raymond was kidnapped in February 2017; photographed at her home in Kuala Lumpur. (Max Underhill)

The last time Susanna Koh saw her husband, Pastor Raymond Koh, was on the morning of Feb. 13, 2017. 

She was babysitting for a friend when he dropped by to pick up a packet of shrimp paste to give to another friend. 

Then as he drove down a leafy residential street in Petaling Jaya, a city west of Kuala Lumpur, three black SUVs surrounded his car. Several men wearing ski masks and black clothing forced Koh out of his Honda Accord and into their vehicle. Then they took off with his car. The whole abduction took less than a minute.

Eyewitness Roeshan Celestine Gomez said he saw a struggle as the men dragged Koh out of his car. As he tried to drive closer, a man stepped out of a gold Toyota Vios and instructed him to back up. Another man with the group recorded the entire abduction on his cell phone. Gomez later reported the incident to the local police, but they told him it sounded like a police operation. 

Susanna began to panic later that night when her husband didn’t show up to a meeting and didn’t answer his phone. A family friend who owned the Honda Koh was driving alerted her son, Jonathan, that police had called to say the car was involved in a kidnapping. That night, Susanna and a lawyer friend went to the police station to file a missing person report. 

Instead of investigating Koh’s disappearance, police interrogated Susanna for five hours, asking about Koh’s work with his aid organization, Harapan Komuniti. They focused on one question: Did Koh proselytize Muslims?

It became clear the police were more interested in investigating Koh than finding him. On Feb. 15, Jonathan and his sister, Esther, drove to the spot of their father’s abduction to investigate themselves. On the grass by the side of the road, they found shattered glass. They asked the owners of several nearby houses if their security cameras had captured anything the morning of the kidnapping.

One camera captured the black SUVs boxing in Koh’s car and forcing him to stop. Two other cars (including the Vios) and two motorcycles trailed behind. While trees block much of the scene, viewers can see men getting out of the SUVs and feet shuffling around Koh’s car before the entire convoy takes off. 

When Susanna saw the footage, she couldn’t breathe.

Three years later Koh is still missing, and his abductors haven’t faced any punishment. Last April, the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (known by its Malay acronym Suhakam), announced that Koh’s abductors were “state agents namely, the Special Branch,” referring to the intelligence agency attached to the Royal Malaysia Police. 

After numerous prayer vigils, heavy media coverage, and even a book written about the case, the government continues to stall in seeking justice for Koh and three others abducted in a similar manner: social activist Amri Che Mat; Pastor Joshua Hilmy, a Muslim convert; and Ruth Sitepu, Hilmy’s Indonesian wife. 

This type of enforced disappearance is unprecedented in Malaysia. Koh’s shocking case has unified the Malaysian church and awakened it to injustices in a country whose government most didn’t consider extremist. Many people I spoke to said it hit close to home: “If it could happen to Pastor Raymond Koh, it could happen to my pastor or even to me.” Though advocates voted a new political coalition into power and set up new oversight bodies, Koh’s family—and families of other abductees—still wait for answers.

MALAYSIA IS KNOWN for its diversity and multiculturalism: In Kuala Lumpur, blue-domed mosques, multicolored Hindu temples, colonial-style white churches, and bright red Buddhist temples sit side-by-side. Red lanterns hang in the city’s central station for Chinese New Year with Muslim prayer rooms—separated for men and women—by the bathrooms. With their hands, women in hijabs eat nasi lemak—rice cooked in coconut milk topped with crispy anchovies and spicy sambal sauce—next to a Chinese businessman and an Indian family.

Malays, whom the constitution defines as Muslim, are about half of the population, with Chinese 23 percent, other indigenous groups 12 percent, and Indians 7 percent. About 60 percent practice Islam, 20 percent are Buddhist, 9 percent are Christian, and 6 percent are Hindu.

Though Islam is Malaysia’s official religion, the constitution guarantees freedom of religion for all citizens. The country has a general civil code and an Islamic law that only applies to Muslims. In 10 of 13 states it is illegal for Malays to convert to any other religion and for Christians to proselytize Malays. 

Those who do come to accept Christ face heavy persecution from religious authorities and their own communities. Authorities send some to rehabilitation centers and brainwash them to return to Islam. Malaysian Christians worship in homes. Christians engaged in ministry to Malays risk running afoul of the law.

Koh, who is ethnically Chinese, grew up in a poor neighborhood among Malay families. He professed faith in Christ in his 20s and later pastored a church plant. Ong Theng Soon, a lawyer in Kuala Lumpur, said Koh led him to Christ in the early 1990s. Koh showed him the love of God and was willing to answer his calls even in the middle of the night: “I consider him my spiritual father.”

After the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami hit parts of Malaysia, Koh aided tsunami victims. He stepped down from the pastorate and created the nonprofit Harapan Komuniti to help the poor.

The organization set up a reading room—a safe place for young people to go after school with access to computers, textbooks, and free tutoring in math and English. Often they would hold cultural events or play soccer. As Koh became more aware of the needs in the community, his nonprofit added a ministry for impoverished single mothers, teaching skills like sewing, cooking, or catering. Koh and others also opened two shelters for HIV patients and a drug rehab center.

“We [helped] those who have needs or are marginalized, people that others don’t want to help because of discrimination,” Susanna said.

She describes her husband was a simple and selfless man literally willing to give others the shirt off his back: Koh only owned three pairs of pants and three shirts and would donate the rest of the clothes Susanna bought him to people in need. His friend Pastor Ng Swee Ming, of Sungai Way-Subang Methodist Church, described Koh as a quiet man who was passionate about helping the downtrodden and a pioneer in his work.

Because his ministry served both non-Muslims and the Muslim Malay community, Koh’s work was risky. Yet through demonstrations of God’s love, some people Harapan helped eventually professed faith in Christ. This angered the religious authorities and members of the Muslim community, who began to target Koh.

Max Underhill

Raymond Koh (Max Underhill)

ON AUG. 3, 2011, Harapan held a thanksgiving dinner at a Methodist church, inviting about 180 people, including donors and recipients of Harapan’s services. Suddenly members of the state’s Islamic Religious Department and 20 police officers stormed in. 

Susanna and several others took them outside. They noted it was a private event, and the officers didn’t have a warrant. The authorities said someone had filed a complaint about the gathering and wanted to know if any Malays were present. Officers took the names of 12 Malay attendees and instructed them to attend religious counseling sessions.

The church filed a police report about the raid, complaining the officials didn’t follow proper procedures. Two months later, the Sultan of Selangor, the highest religious official of the state, issued a decree saying officers should drop their investigation: The department did not find enough evidence to prove Christians were proselytizing Muslims at the meeting. 

But Muslim bloggers continued to make accusations about Koh and Harapan. One wrote that Koh received money for every person he converted from Islam. Koh’s family noticed people following them when they went out and received threatening phone calls day and night. One morning Jonathan found a package with a message written in red ink: “I will kill you. You wait and see who is stronger—Islam or Christianity.” Inside the package were two bullets.

“It was terrible, it was so unsettling,” Susanna said. “We felt afraid and intimidated.” Even after the decree, every time the couple traveled out of the country, police would interrogate them when they returned to Malaysia, asking about Harapan as well as the kindergarten Susanna used to run. This continued for about a year. 

But Koh continued his work. A year before his disappearance, Koh published a book to help Christians pray for Malaysia. It broke the country down into 52 different sections and included background about the region, testimonies, and prayer items. 

ON FEB. 13, 2017, the masked men in black SUVs kidnapped Koh, and police began hampering the family’s search for justice. They claimed the surveillance cameras along the road didn’t work or didn’t pick up where the SUVs went. In June authorities announced they found photos of Koh, his car, and his residence in the home of a drug and arms smuggler they had killed in a shootout. 

But during the Suhakam inquiry, which began in October, Koh family lawyer Jerald Gomez pointed out police hadn’t listed these items in the report of the raid and they were not exhibited with the rest of the evidence. Gomez argued the “photos were a red herring to divert attention from the police and pin it on a deceased person.” The panel concluded the items either never existed or police planted them.

Suhakam does not have the power to make criminal convictions, but it can make judgments on a “balance of probability” and advise the government in its next steps. Local human rights groups asked the commission to hold public inquiries to determine whether the abductions of Koh, Amri, Hilmy, and Sitepu  were enforced disappearances. 

Eyewitnesses indicated Amri’s November 2016 abduction was similar to Koh’s, including black SUVs that boxed in his car. Religious authorities had targeted Amri in the past because of his Shiite faith, which the majority Sunni population considered apostasy. They claimed his organization, Perlis Hope, was a front for spreading Shiism. 

A major break in the cases came in May 2018, when a sergeant from the Special Branch visited Amri’s wife and told her that the Special Branch had abducted her husband. He also said the same gold Toyota Vios took part in both Amri’s and Koh’s abductions. An eyewitness jotted down its license plate: PFC 1623.

During the inquiry, police claimed they couldn’t reveal the car’s owner because law made it confidential. But lawyers found the owner worked as an administrative assistant at the police training center and had worked with the Royal Malaysia Police for the past 18 years. When Suhakam asked the police about this man, they claimed he had resigned and they could not find him. The whistleblower sergeant also denied ever meeting with Amri’s wife. 

On April 9, 2019, Suhakam finally released its judgment: The Special Branch of the Royal Malaysia Police was responsible for both Amri’s and Koh’s abductions. The panel also noted the police did not thoroughly investigate the disappearances.

Susanna and other advocates were surprised to see the commission courageously call out the powerful police force. The panel also recommended setting up an “Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission” (IPCMC) and a Special Task Force to reopen and reinvestigate Amri’s and Koh’s disappearances. It also called for a clear separation between the police and the religious authorities. 

Many hoped that after the opposition Alliance of Hope coalition won elections in 2018—beating the National Front coalition, which has ruled the country since independence—the new government, led by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, would investigate properly and charge the perpetrators. But advocates face more of the same.

The government did set up the Special Task Force, but advocates argue several of its members have conflicts of interest and will likely protect their own. While the Task Force promised to update the Koh family on its progress, Susanna said it hasn’t once notified her and has delayed its final ruling, which was supposed to be in December. Since then, Koh has sued the former inspecors general of the police. The drafted IPCMC bill turned out to be “toothless and limbless,” with less investigative power than the previous system, said Citizens Against Enforced Disappearances spokesman Rama Ramanathan. 

Max Underhill

Susanna Koh and her daughter Esther walk along the stretch of road where Raymond was kidnapped in Petaling Jaya. (Max Underhill)

RAMANATHAN BELIEVES Koh’s abduction was a wake-up call for the church to pay attention to the government and the police’s abuse, which includes cases of people dying in custody.  

After Koh’s disappearance, Christians and the larger civil society gathered for candlelight vigils in cities around Malaysia. The vigils also included concerned Malaysians from different backgrounds, including Sikhs, Buddhists, and Muslims, who stood in solidarity in calling for authorities to search for Koh. 

On the 50th day after Koh’s abduction, about 500 Christians from 71 churches joined for an ecumenical prayer service. At the end, the leaders of different denominations—including the Catholic archbishop, the Anglican archbishop, the Methodist bishop, as well as Baptist, Evangelical, and Methodist pastors—held hands and prayed for the Koh family.

Susanna, whom the U.S. State Department named a 2020 International Women of Courage Award recipient, said she wouldn’t have made it through the past three years without the church’s support. From the beginning, friends and church members helped the family plan next steps, provided emotional and financial support, and helped them advocate for Koh. Christians around the world have sent boxes of letters that encourage her too.

In the weeks leading up to the abduction in 2017, Susanna recalled her husband would spend more time reading the Bible or go on extended prayer walks. She wondered if he knew something would happen soon. Esther remembered that a week or two before her father’s abduction, she texted about someone upsetting her. Koh responded, “God knows.”

“That was our last conversation,” Esther said through tears. “I don’t know why at that time I just cried and cried. I didn’t know what was going to happen. … It’s strange, after he was abducted I always remember those two words he said to me.

“Whatever happened to him, God knows.”

Angela Lu Fulton

Angela Lu Fulton

Angela is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine and a part-time editor for WORLD Digital. She is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Angela resides in Taipei, Taiwan. Follow her on Twitter @angela818.