News arrived from Malaysia on Wednesday that four Finnish nationals - two men and two women - had been arrested for distributing materials about Christianity in a public space. All four of the Finns are reportedly being held in detention, awaiting trial.
Later it was revealed that one of those arrested for distributing Christian pamphlets is the head of the Finnish Christian youth group Joosua Missio, Timo Valtonen.
Valtonen has worked as campaign manager for Finns Party MP Mika Niikko in the past two parliamentary elections.
Southeast Asian holiday
Niikko told Yle that Valtonen had been on holiday with his wife in Thailand and then went to Malaysia.
“They had Christian material with them as usual, and they share it with people that they meet,” the Finns Party MP said.
Malaysia is a Muslim-majority country with strict laws on Christian missionary activities.
According to Malaysian online newspaper New Straits Times, the group was arrested on Tuesday at about 5:00 pm local time at a hotel in the country’s island district of Langkawi.
Local police are investigating the case as "causing disharmony, disunity or feelings of emnity" according to the Malaysian news outlet.
They were arrested after police received several complaints from members of the public who were suspicious about their activities, the outlet reported.
Niikko said he believes the group’s activities attracted attention because the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday is celebrated this week by Muslims around the world. The group was scheduled to return to Finland on Thursday, but if convicted could each face a maximum jail sentence of five years.
Niikko said he finds it hard to believe the group will receive such long sentences but said the country may seek to send out a warning by doing so.
Embassy in touch with authorities
Deputy Head of Delegation at the Finnish Embassy in Malaysia, Teemu Laakkonen, told news agency STT that the embassy has been in continual contact with local authorities since it became aware of the arrests.
However he would not comment on the accusations directed at the Finns, nor whether the delegation has been in contact with them. He said he was unable to say what circumstances the group is in, but that the delegation would work to ensure that the human rights of the suspects are respected. Laakkonen said the standards of detention facilities in the country are variable.
He said a judge will decide how long the detainees can be held without being formally charged, but he said the maximum time is two weeks. Laakkonen said arrested foreigners generally spend a few days in detention in Malaysia.
The delegation will also see that the imprisoned group receive adequate food, water and care as required.
He said that the security situation in Malaysia is overall good, but noted that the country strictly enforces laws on matters of religion.
Regarding the religious group’s potential sentences, Laakkonen said it’s possible they could receive 2-5 years in jail, but also said it’s possible they could be released after paying face fines or making a public apology.
"Compared to other Muslim countries, the penalties are not as strict here," Laakkonen said. However he said criticism of Islam by outsiders is not well tolerated, despite a general freedom of religion in the country.
News reports about the incident were first issued in Finland by Turun Sanomat and Ilta-Sanomat.