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Malaysian court upholds ban on non-Muslims using ‘Allah’ to refer to God

Published time: June 23, 2014 19:46
Edited time: June 25, 2014 20:15
A Muslim man stands outside the court in Putrajaya outside Kuala Lumpur June 23, 2014. (Reuters/Samsul Said)

A Muslim man stands outside the court in Putrajaya outside Kuala Lumpur June 23, 2014. (Reuters/Samsul Said)

Non-Muslims cannot use the word ‘Allah’ to refer to God, Malaysia’s highest court ruled Monday, as it overturned a bid by the Islamic state’s Christian minority, which ended a battle that lasted several years and brought about much violence.

Four of the seven justices ruled that "the use of Allah is not an integral part of the Christian faith."

The ruling that upheld a lower court decision, however, only applied to the Malay-language version of the Catholic weekly newspaper, The Herald. Malaysian Christians, which make up about 9 per cent of the country’s 29-million population, still will be allowed to use the word Allah in church services.

The newspaper criticized the court's decision saying it was “disappointed”.

The Federal’s Court decision ends the long lasting dispute over the use of the Arabic word in the Malay-language Catholic edition.

Last October, the Court of Appeals overturned a 2009 ruling by a lower court and banned The Herald from using Allah to refer to God. Muslim judges reasoned that the word was not “an integral part of the faith in Christianity" and could “cause confusion in the community.”

The Herald argued that that the term "Allah" has been the common term for God in the Malay language for centuries and should not pose a problem to Muslims.

Back then lawyers for the Catholic Church asked the Federal Court to overturn the ruling. But this Monday the court ordered that the lower court's decision had been correct.

Muslim demonstrators chant slogans outside Malaysia's Court of Appeal in Putrajaya, outside Kuala Lumpur, March 5, 2014. (Reuters/Samsul Said)

“The four judges who denied us the right to appeal did not touch on fundamental basic rights of minorities,” said Reverend Lawrence Andrew, editor of The Herald. "[The ruling] will confine the freedom of worship."

The Herald has been involved in the conflict since 2007, when the dispute first erupted. It followed the Home Ministry’s threat to revoke the publishing permit of the newspaper for using the word Allah in the newspaper.

The Catholic Church has vowed on Monday to continue its battle to challenge the ban. It expressed fears that the Federal Court’s decision could create a precedent to restrict religious freedom in other cases.

"This is a sad state of affairs that shows how far and fast religious tolerance is falling in Malaysia," said Phil Robertson, a spokesman for Human Rights Watch, as cited by AP. "The Malaysian government should be working to promote freedom of religion rather politically exploiting religious wedge issues."

Monday’s Court’s ruling does not stipulate the penalty in case the law is violated as well it does not clarify if the ban would apply to Bibles and other published material, AP reports. Back in January Islamic authorities seized hundreds of Bibles, which contained the word Allah, from a Christian group.

The anti-ruling camp is overwhelmingly in favor of the view that the measure is an attempt by Prime Minister Najib Razak, who took office in 2009, to consolidate his grip on power and strengthen Islamic institutions in the country.

Although Malaysia is among a small number of Muslim countries promoting religious pluralism, it is also the only Muslim state with a sizeable Christian minority where such measures are being widely debated.

The same hasn’t happened in either Indonesia – the world’s most populace Islamic state, or Egypt, whose 10 percent Coptic Christian population likewise refers to God as ‘Allah’.