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Malaysia: Use of 'Allah' still unresolved for Malaysia's Christians

08 March 2014

Malaysian Christians this week have been anxious about their right to practise their faith without state interference or provocation from militant Islam, as three cases concerning religious freedom have come to court.

Much is riding on the legal system to affirm Malaysia's constitutional guarantee of religious freedom.

Christians in Malaysia have endured steady attacks on their faith during the past year. There have been taunts, such as a banner declaring "Jesus is the son of Allah" attached to railings of a church in the popular resort island of Penang. There have been threats, including petrol bombs hurled at a church, and the seizure of bibles. And there has been the hounding of Rev. Lawrence Andrew, the editor of a Catholic newspaper, who insisted his paper will continue to use the word "Allah" to name God when appropriate, despite his effigy being burnt, protests outside his church, and a charge of sedition being laid against him.

The government's order allowing only Muslims to use the word "Allah" is particularly galling to Christians in multiracial Malaysia, a nation once tolerant of all creeds. The indigenous Sabah and Sarawak, who constitute 70 per cent of the country's Christian population, have been using the word in their theological vocabulary -- both in worship in the Malay language, or in written form in the Malay Bible, the Alkitab -- for more than 100 years.

Yet the government, individual Sultans and state-sponsored Muslim bodies dictate that 'Allah' belongs exclusively to Muslim Malays, despite widespread criticism of the policy from Muslim scholars around the world.

Against this backdrop of fear and repression, the Federal Court - the highest judicial body in the land - heard a plea on 5 March from the Catholic Herald newspaper to overrule a lower court ruling that barred the publication from using the word "Allah."

The controversy, which began in 2006 when the government banned the Herald from using the word, has led to acts of provocation against Christians and undermined religious harmony. The Catholic Church contested the order and the High Court restored the newspaper's constitutional right to use the word in 2009. The government appealed that decision and in October 2013 a three-man Court of Appeal ruled that Malay Muslims had an exclusive claim to the word "Allah," a word that precedes the birth of Islam.

Source: World Watch Monitor

Read more at World Watch Monitor New Window

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