International

Malaysia rejects Church paper's last bid to use 'Allah'

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia’s highest court on Wednesday rejected a final bid by the country’s Catholic newspaper for the right to use the word “Allah” to refer to the Christian God, in a case that has aggravated religious tensions.

The Federal Court, Malaysia’s highest, had ended a seven-year legal battle last June by rejecting a final appeal by The Herald weekly.

The newspaper subsequently launched an attempt to have the court undertake a rare review of last year’s decision, but the Federal Court dismissed the move Wednesday.

Christians have pointed to the “Allah” controversy as indicative of shrinking tolerance for minority faiths in Muslim-majority Malaysia.

“This is only the beginning,” said Father Lawrence Andrew, the newspaper’s editor, who has led the Church’s fight.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if they come along and say ‘don’t use it (Allah) in your services.'”

The decision only affects The Herald, not church services or bibles distributed in the country, where Malay-speaking Christians say they have used the Arabic word “Allah” to refer to their god for centuries.

The newspaper has not used the word since Malaysia’s Muslim-controlled government first banned it from doing so in 2007, setting off the legal wrangling.

The government has said Christian use of “Allah” could confuse Muslims and entice them to convert, which is illegal.

The word was only used in the newspaper’s Malay-language sub-section.

– Religious boundaries –

Malaysia has largely avoided overt religious conflict in recent decades, but tensions have slowly grown amid a decades-long trend that has seen conservative Islam gain greater influence in the traditionally moderate Muslim nation.

In 2009 a court ruling in favour of an initial Church challenge to the “Allah” ban sparked a spate of arson and vandalism attacks on Christian houses of worship. No one was reported killed or hurt.

The use of the word had angered some Muslims who say Christians are overstepping religious boundaries.

Malaysia’s Muslim ethnic-Malay majority claims political and religious pre-eminence in the multi-racial country.

Minorities have long resented some aspects of this, primarily a decades-old positive discrimination policy which favours Malays in education, housing, employment and other spheres.

Islamic conservatives, however, have increasingly claimed Malays and Muslims were under threat from Christian and liberal forces.

Early last year, Islamic authorities seized hundreds of Bibles, which contained the word “Allah”, from a Christian group. They were eventually returned.

Around 2.6 million of Malaysia’s 28 million people are Christian, mostly from ethnic Chinese, Indian or indigenous tribal backgrounds, while 60 percent are Muslim ethnic Malay.

Prime Minister Najib Razak, who took office in 2009, initially portrayed himself as a reformer but he has increasingly rolled back reforms and racial-unity rhetoric to please hardliners in his Malay ruling party, which has held power since independence in 1957.

The opposition and activists accuse the government of allowing Muslim pressure to grow, in order to pander to its Malay voter base.

Najib’s regime has steadily lost electoral ground to a multi-racial opposition that accuses the government of misrule, rights abuses and corruption. -AFP

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