A church of the Borneo Evangelical Church in the Bario Highlands. (Photo supplied)
Following a legal battle that dragged on for more than a decade, Malaysia’s High Court has allowed the use of Islamic words including “Allah” by Christians and other non-Muslim communities in the country.
The court on March 10 ruled that non-Muslims can use “Allah” for God as well as “Kaabah” (Islam’s holiest shrine in Mecca), “Baitullah” (house of God) and “solat” (prayer) for religious and educational purposes including prayers, publications and religious services.
The ruling overturned a ban by the Malaysian government on Christians using “Allah” in an apparent move to favor Islamic radical groups.
High Court judge Nor Bee Ariffin said the ban conflicted with the constitutional rights of religious freedom.
"There is no such power to restrict religious freedom under Article 11. Religious freedom is absolutely protected even in times of threat to public order,” the judge noted.
The verdict comes 13 years after Jill Ireland Lawrence Bill, a Christian from Sarawak state, filed a petition with the court for her right to use the word “Allah” for religious practices.
She resorted to legal action after the Malaysian government seized eight educational compact discs (CDs) that contained the world “Allah” at an airport in 2008 on her return from Indonesia.
In 2014, a court declared the seizure unlawful and the CDs were returned to her in 2015.
The judge’s ruling also effectively overturned a circular by Malaysia’s Home Ministry in 1986 that banned use of the word “Allah” in Christian publications, citing a threat to public order.
The judge said the ministry had exceeded its powers with the order.
The plaintiff’s lawyer, Annou Xavier, said the court ruling “entrenches the fundamental freedom of religious rights for non-Muslims in Malaysia” enshrined in the constitution, Associated Press reported.
In a joint statement, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and the conservative Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) expressed concerns over the court ruling.
“We view the High Court’s decision on allowing Islamic terms to be used by non-Muslims seriously,” the statement said. “We urge that the rule on Islamic terms be brought to the Court of Appeal.”
The ban on use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims was introduced during the time of an UMNO-led coalition government that ruled Malaysia since its independence from Britain in 1957. The coalition was ousted in the historic election of 2018.
In 2010, amid trials in Jill’s case, racial Islamic groups staged violent protests in which they firebombed and vandalized 11 churches in Malaysia against the rights of non-Muslims to use the word “Allah.”
Catholic weekly The Herald was banned by the Home Ministry from using the word in 2013. A year later, the paper lost a legal battle in court over the government order.
Sidang Injil Borneo (Borneo Evangelical Church) has been fighting for the legal right to use the word “Allah.”
In Malaysia, Christians of Malay origin have been accustomed to the religious practice of using the word “Allah” for God for centuries, especially in the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak where about two-thirds of the country’s Christians live.
However, some radical Muslim clerics argued that using “Allah” was the exclusive right of Muslims and allowing Christians to do so could cause confusion and unrest.
Muslims make up about 60 percent of Malaysia’s 32 million population and Christians account for about 13 percent, making up the third-largest religious group.