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Malaysia's 'word for God' debate rumbles on

Christians' fight to use the word 'Allah' is back in court

  • Michael Lenz, Kuala Lumpur
  • Malaysia
  • June 26, 2013
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The Malaysian election is over and the controversy over use of the word Allah has bounced back from the political arena to the courts. Yet it is still unclear when the case will be heard.

Are Christians allowed to use “Allah” – the Arabic word for God – in Malay language publications as they have done ever since the first translation of the Bible into Malay some 400 years ago?

In 2008 the Malaysian Home Ministry said “No.” Muslims will get confused if they do, it said, and threatened not to renew the publication license for the Malay language edition of the Catholic weekly The Herald if they continued to use Allah.

The Herald launched a court challenge and won the lawsuit in December 2009 because of the government’s failure to prove its “confusion” claim.

“They did not present one single example of ‘confusion’,” Herald editor Father Lawrence Andrew recalls.

The government appealed against the verdict instantly, yet a final date for the appeal has still to be set. 

It may have been the verdict that prompted customs officials to seize thousands of Malay language Bibles imported from Indonesia.

During the recent election campaign the incumbent BN party stuck up posters that showed a Christian church with the words “Rumah Allah’’, or House of Allah.

It read: “Do we want to see our children and grandchildren pray in this Allah's house? If we allow the use of the word Allah in churches, we sell our religion, race and nation....Vote Barisan Nasional because they can protect your religion, race and nation.’’

The May 5 election was generally considered a disaster for the BN. Although it retained a majority of seats, it lost the popular vote.

Some 51 percent of voters liked the idea of an inclusive multi-racial and multi-religious Malaysia espoused by the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) coalition, of which the Islamic party, PAS, is a crucial member.

For the PR, Christians using the word Allah was not an issue. Many Malaysians are convinced gerrymandering and fraud saved the BN from losing power, which it has held ever since Malaysia became independent 56 years ago. The BN stood firm in rural areas, whereas the PR is the champion of the urban middle class.

The majority of village folk in Malaysia are pious Muslims and their main source of information is the government and the BN/UMNO controlled media. To shore up its rural voter base, UMNO played the religious card, using Allah as the rallying cry.

Why the Allah-Herald case was delayed three years and rushed back to the courts immediately after the election is no more clear than the date for the appeal hearing.

The lawyers for The Herald have not commented although Annou Xavier, a lawyer handling one of two Allah lawsuits filed by Protestant Christians, is less shy: “Prime Minister Najib Razak lost the election. Now, he wants to present himself this autumn at the UMNO party conference as the saviour of Allah and Islam.”

When the appeal does arrive, Fr Andrew believes the Church has a strong case supported by unassailable evidence. He grabs a Bible from the desk in his office in Kuala Lumpur. “The government ordered all Bibles marked with a ‘for Christian use only’-stamp. Here you can see the stamp, signed by the Ministry of Interior”, he says.

He also cites 'the 10 Point Solution,' a decree by Prime Minister Najib himself in April 2011,  which Fr Andrew says gives "basic government approval of the use of the word Allah in Malay language Bibles.” 

The government may find it difficult to argue against that decree, observers believe.

However, since it is a pending court case, nobody in the Catholic Church is prepared to comment.

Meanwhile, the opposition-backed Black 505 movement (referring to the date of the elections on May 5) have held mass protests all over Malaysia, claiming electoral fraud and demanding the resignation of the Election Commission.

The government has responded by arresting leaders of the opposition and the Black 505 and charging them with sedition. 

In this climate of political uncertainty, nobody can confidently predict the last word on the Allah case. 

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