PUTRAJAYA, Malaysia – An appeals panel ruled Monday that a Malaysian Catholic newspaper could not use “Allah” to refer to the Christian God, in a case that sparked attacks on places of worship three years ago.
The publishers of the Herald, who had argued that a 2009 government ban on the use of Allah in its Malay-language edition was unconstitutional, said after the ruling they planned to appeal to the higher Federal Court.
“It is our judgment that there is no infringement of any of the constitutional rights,” said Apandi Ali, head of the three-judge panel.
“It is our common finding that the usage of the name ‘Allah’ is not an integral part of the faith and practice of Christianity.”
The dispute erupted in early 2009 when the Home Ministry threatened to revoke the Herald’s publishing permit for using the word, saying it could cause religious strife.
The Catholic Church sued, claiming violation of its constitutional rights. A court upheld the church’s argument later that year and lifted the ban pending judicial review.
The ban’s removal triggered a series of attacks on places of worship in early 2010, mostly churches, using Molotov cocktails, rocks and paint, and sparked fears of wider religious conflict in the multi-faith country.
Herald editor Father Lawrence Andrew said Monday’s ruling was flawed, noting that “Allah” has been used extensively in Malay-language versions of the Bible for decades without trouble.
“It is also a retrograde step in the development of the law relating to the fundamental liberties of religious minorities in this country,” he told reporters.
Andrew insisted the Church remained unbowed and would appeal.
Some observers have expressed fear that a ruling in the Malay-dominated government’s favor could potentially be used as precedent to have “Allah” also stricken from Bibles.
About 150 Muslims, led by right-wing Malay Muslim rights group Perkasa, gathered outside the court on Monday, holding banners that read “Allah just for Muslim, fight, no fear” in a noisy protest followed by prayers.
“It is clear that ‘Allah’ cannot be abused for any purpose,” Perkasa head Ibrahim Ali said.
Muslims make up 60 percent of the country’s 28 million people, while Christians account for about nine percent.
Following the initial government ban, Muslim groups seized on the issue, claiming that the Arabic word “Allah” is exclusive to Islam.
They also said they feared Muslims might be confused and convert to Christianity if Christian literature used “Allah”. Converting Muslims is forbidden in Malaysia.
Malaysia has largely avoided overt religious conflict in recent decades, but tensions have slowly risen along with what many perceive as an increasing Islamization of the Southeast Asian country.
Prime Minister Najib Razak, who took office in 2009, has walked a tight-rope between pleasing his ethnic Malay Muslim base while not alienating the country’s non-Muslim ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities.
Since his 56-year-ruling coalition was re-elected in May with a reduced majority, he has come increasingly under pressure to stand up for the supporters of his party, the United Malays National Organization.