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Vendors descend from across the country on a patch of vacant land. They set up stalls that resound with loud Bollywood music and hawk clothes and snacks to throngs of eager visitors. This might be any market bazaar. But, in the sleepy Malaysian town of Bukit Mertajam, it’s a scene at the Feast of Saint Anne, who is revered in Roman Catholicism as mother of the Virgin Mary.

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Orthodox religious practitioners have responded to this carnival on a scale “from indifference and bemusement to wariness and hostility.” Their reactions show “a reliance on idealized and discrete notions of sacred meanings and religious differences,” anthropologist Yeoh Seng Guan finds.

In his fieldwork in the late 1990s, Yeoh studied the activities of pilgrims and merchants around the shrine of St. Anne, which is nestled in the hills on the outskirts of town. He reports that the devotees are adherents of not just Catholicism but also other faith traditions of multi-ethnic Malaysia, including Chinese folk religions, Buddhism, Hinduism, and even Islam.

Reflecting that cultural diversity, Indian devotees, both Catholic and Hindu, prefer to leave offerings in the form of metal votive images such as “representations of body parts that require divine healing, iconic images of babies to signify wanted pregnancy, and so forth.” In contrast, Chinese pilgrims, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, tend to favor monetary donations.

Yet the Catholic authorities responsible for the shrine have voiced reservations about some practices. One priest removed multiple statues of saints from public display after witnessing pilgrims “reverentially touching them” in the belief that this would bestow “more” blessings.

“[His] particular unease with the pilgrim’s perception of statues as possessing ‘magical’ qualities…was not an idiosyncratic interpretation but a manifestation of the perennial negotiations between popular Roman Catholic religiosity and the demands of the orthodox Christian life,” Yeoh writes. He notes that another local priest, who hews to an “evangelistic and renewal” strain of Christianity, has taken groups to the shrine with the aim of “steering the Roman Catholic pilgrim’s devotion back towards the sacraments, the rosary, and most crucially to Jesus Christ,” rather than to Catholic saints.

Fundamentalist Protestant groups have also delivered a similar message at the shrine. He found that “[p]rayer meetings and the occasional protest gatherings (with placards) were usually organized during the Feast to decry activities at the shrine as a dangerous distortion of Christian teaching.”

Yeoh argues that spiritual leaders’ discomfort with practices at the shrine stems from “the apparent fusion of religious horizons in visual evidence,” which blurs the boundaries between faiths. Characterizing religious phenomena as “syncretism” requires “an epistemological assumption of ‘pure’ and ‘authentic’ forms,” he notes. However, the Bukit Mertajam pilgrims’ behavior shows “cultural wholes might not be fully and historically sealed in the first place.”

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Asian Journal of Social Science, Vol. 37, No. 1, SPECIAL FOCUS: Religion (2009), pp. 7–28