Malaysia imposes new ban on use of 'Allah' by non-Muslims

By Ecumenical News International
March 10, 2009

Malaysia's government has re-imposed a ban on the word Allah in Bibles, and in Christian newspapers and religious texts in the Malay language following pressure from some Islamic groups in the southeast Asian country - writes Michele Green.

The home affairs ministry retracted a decree issued in mid-February 2009 which would have allowed the Roman Catholic-run Herald newspaper to use the word Allah in its Malay-language edition, if it included a warning on the front page saying the newspaper was for Christians.

Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar said the government had made a mistake in enacting the decree allowing the word to be used and that the matter should be decided in the courts. A petition by the Herald is still pending.

"There is a judicial review on the matter and we leave it to the court to decide. I think there was a mistake in enacting the gazette," the national Bernama news agency quoted Syed as telling reporters. A new government gazette about the ban would be issued this week, the Star newspaper reported.

Malaysian newspapers said the about-face was due to concern that Muslim groups who deeply disapprove of non-Muslims using the term "Allah" in their religious texts would vent their anger at the government in upcoming special or by-elections.

Christians point out that 'Allah' is the only word in Malay for God. They say they have used this word for more than 100 years and that it is allowed and widely used in Indonesia and by Christians living in other Arabic countries.

About 60 percent of Malaysia's 26 million population is Muslim. The rest are Buddhists (19 percent, Christians (9 percent), Hindus (6 percent), Sikhs and other faiths. Non-Muslims regularly complain that religious freedoms are encroached upon by the Muslim-led government.

The decision to allow the Herald to use the word "Allah" in its Malay-language edition followed a lengthy court battle after authorities in 2008 ordered the newspaper, run by the Catholic Church, to stop using the word. The newspaper was told its licence to publish would be revoked if it continued printing the word.

"Now we can use the word Allah again and continue printing," the Rev. Lawrence Andrew, the editor of the Catholic weekly had said after the earlier short-lived decision, in February.

Malaysian Christians were also not entirely happy with the decision which required the newspaper to print a disclaimer, "For Christianity", in large type on the front page near the masthead. Failure to do so could have led to fines and imprisonment.

"This is an unfair imposition and unwarranted restriction on the practice of the Christian religion in this country," the Rev Hermen Shastri, the general secretary of the Council of Churches in Malaysia, had said in a statement. "People are now in a position of being in possession of a prohibited document."

He added that the government should accept the use of the term "Allah" as a heritage of non-Muslims in the region, and that the word was not exclusive to one religion.

Under Malaysian law, a citizen cannot convert to religions other than Islam. Muslim leaders have long expressed concerns that publications run by non-Muslim religious groups might be used to proselytise.

Ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities in Malaysia are mostly Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs.

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]

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