'Allah' ruling gives home minister absolute power, says non-Muslim faith panel

Members of Perkasa hold a rally outside the Court of Appeal in Putrajaya on October 14, 2013. The Court of Appeal had later ruled that the use of the word was not integral to the Christian faith. — Picture by Saw Siow Feng
Members of Perkasa hold a rally outside the Court of Appeal in Putrajaya on October 14, 2013. The Court of Appeal had later ruled that the use of the word was not integral to the Christian faith. — Picture by Saw Siow Feng

KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 21 — The country's main non-Muslim faith umbrella group is disputing the Cabinet's interpretation of the Allah ruling, pointing out today that the Court of Appeal had given the home minister “absolute power” in regulating religions other than Islam.

Despite Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak's and other ministers' assurances today that the ruling did not affect other publications and usage of the word “Allah”, the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST) thinks that the government is missing the significance of the “Allah” ruling against the Catholic newspaper the Herald.

The council's president Jagir Singh said that the court had decided that the words “peace and harmony” in Article 3 of the Federal Constitution would mean to protect only Islam instead of allowing non-Muslims to practise their religions freely and without restriction.

“The danger is that the home minister may regulate fundamental liberties, including the freedom of religion, on the basis that some people will be confused or it is contrary to public order and the court will sit idly by and not enquire into its legality, fairness or justice,” Jagir said in a statement.

Last Monday the Court of Appeal ruled against a High Court decision allowing the Catholic Church to refer to the Christian god with the Middle Eastern word “Allah” in the Bahasa Malaysia section of its weekly newsletter, the Herald.

The court adjudged the usage of the word “Allah” as not integral to the Christian faith and said that allowing such an application would cause confusion in the Muslim community.

The Catholic Church has said it would appeal the decision. Sabah and Sarawak churches, however, have maintained that they will continue their age-old practice of addressing God as “Allah” in their prayer services and in the Al-Kitab, the Bahasa Malaysia translation of the bible.

An increasing number of Christians now use Bahasa Malaysia in church services, and “Allah” is used to describe God in translations of the bible. “Allah” is also used by Christians in Indonesia and the Middle East.

Despite assurances that churches here only wanted to use the word in services and on literature meant for Christians, conservative Muslims here see its use as an attempt by Christians to confuse or convert Muslims.

In its ruling the Court of Appeal said that “the insertion of the words “in peace and harmony” in Article 3(1) (of the federal constitution) is to protect the sanctity of Islam and “also to insulate against any threat … to the religion of Islam”.

Prime Minister Najib said today that the ruling would not affect Sabah and Sarawak, while separately another Cabinet minister claimed that Christians from the Borneo states could also use the word in peninsula Malaysia.

They were silent, however, on whether the Herald ruling meant the publication could be distributed in Sabah and Sarawak.

Lawyers have pointed out the court had set a binding precedent, and it is unclear how the Cabinet came to its interpretation.

The Cabinet has so far been silent as well on two other cases pending in the courts that also involve the use of the word “Allah.”

The Home Ministry had confiscated eight compact discs bearing the word “Allah” on May 11, 2008 from Sarawakian Christian Jill Ireland at the Low Cost Carrier Terminal (LCCT) airport in Sepang, prompting the Bumiputera Christian to challenge its decision in court.

Although the High Court granted Ireland leave for judicial review in May 4, 2009, the hearing for the legal challenge has yet to start.

The ruling also casts doubt over how the judiciary will rule on a similar court case brought by Sidang Injil Borneo (Borneo Evangelical Church) Sabah, who is suing the Home Ministry for confiscating its Malay-language Christian education publications, which contain the word “Allah”, in 2007.

Both the SIB Sabah case and Jill Ireland’s case were put on the backburner in recent years pending the disposal of the Catholic Church’s case.

Today, Home Minister Datuk Zahid Hamidi seemed to suggest that the Herald was targeted when other Christians are allowed to use the Middle Eastern word, because it “might mislead other followers”.

“They should understand it is not so much about not allowing other publications or other associations for that matter, this appeal made by the minister of home affairs is due to the effect, not only to Islam but it might mislead other followers, in this case I think the verdict by the Court of Appeal should be respected,” Zahid said.

These three cases involving Jill Ireland, Sabah SIB and the Herald’s publisher have cast a spotlight on the rights of religious minorities in the country, especially Bumiputera Christians.

Christians are the third-largest religious group in Malaysia at 2.6 million, according to statistics from the 2010 consensus, behind Muslims and Buddhists.

Bumiputera Christians are said to number around 1.6 million and have been using the word “Allah” in the national language and their native tongues for centuries for the practice of their religion.