Despite court ruling, other ‘Allah’ legal challenges to proceed

A small crowd of people waiting outside the Court of Appeal in Putrajaya on August 22, 2013 for the hearing of the Catholic Church’s appeal on the ‘Allah’ case. — Picture by Choo Choy May
A small crowd of people waiting outside the Court of Appeal in Putrajaya on August 22, 2013 for the hearing of the Catholic Church’s appeal on the ‘Allah’ case. — Picture by Choo Choy May

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KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 21 — Amid continuing unease over the effects of an appellate court ruling suggesting Muslim monopoly over “Allah”, a lawyer in another case also related to the use of the Arabic word has sought to put distance between the two instances.  

Annou Xavier, the lawyer for Jill Ireland Lawrence Bill, maintained the Sarawak-born Christian’s legal challenge involving compact discs bearing the word “Allah” differed from case in which the Home Ministry banned the use of the word in the Catholic Church’s weekly paper Herald as part of the publication permit.

“The principles in (the Herald) case and the principles in Jill Ireland’s case [are] a little bit different,” Xavier said when contacted by The Malay Mail Online.

“Different because (the Herald) case is about a permit issued by Home Ministry where the permit says you can’t use the word in the weekly. In Jill Ireland’s case, it is about her right of education and her right of worship.

“We will try to distinguish Jill Ireland’s case from the Court of Appeal (ruling),” he said.

Last week, the Court of Appeal’s Justice Datuk Seri Mohamed Apandi Ali said the home minister had acted well within his powers to disallow the Herald from using the word “Allah” in its Bahasa Malaysia section, which caters to the Catholic Church’s Bumiputera Christians.

The court also controversially decided that “Allah” was not integral to the Christian faith and its practice.

“From such finding, we find no reason why the respondent is so adamant to use the name ‘Allah’ in their weekly publication. Such usage, if allowed, will inevitably cause confusion within the community,” the leading judge in a three-man panel had said when reading out from a summary of the judgment.

When asked how the judges’ finding that “Allah” was not integral to Christianity would affect Jill Ireland’s case, Xavier merely said that the judges had “went on a frolic of their own”.

Xavier, who had also represented the Catholic Church in the Herald case, stressed that Jill Ireland’s case will still proceed.

“As far as Jill Ireland case is concerned, we will go on with the case irrespective of decision of the Court of Appeal,” he said, amid concerns that the ruling would not bode well for other court cases on the word “Allah”.

The ruling also casts doubt over how the judiciary will rule on another 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.

According to Xavier, Jill Ireland’s case will come up in the High Court for mention soon.

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

Xavier confirmed that the court can hear Jill Ireland’s judicial review without waiting for the Catholic Church’s appeal at the Federal Court to be disposed of.

“We can still go on if we want to,” he said, but said her legal team will decide when the case comes up for mention.

On May 11, 2008, the Home Ministry confiscated eight CDs from Jill Ireland at the Low Cost Carrier Terminal (LCCT) airport in Sepang, prompting the Bumiputera Christian to challenge its decisions in court.

The CDs bore names such as “Cara Hidup Dalam Kerajaan Allah”, “Hidup Benar Dalam Kerajaan Allah” and “Ibadah Yang Benar Dalam Kerajaan Allah”.

In August 2008, Jill Ireland filed for judicial review of the Home Ministry’s actions and a return of the CDs, besides a declaratory relief saying that she has a legitimate expectation to exercise the right to use “Allah”and continue to own and import such materials.

In August 2010, Jill Ireland’s lawyers had also filed an application to cross-examine the then Home Minister Tan Sri Syed Hamid Albar, but the application was dismissed by the High Court on July 12, 2011.

The Melanau Christian then appealed to the Court of Appeal in April 3, 2012 but the appellate court dismissed the appeal on getting Syed Hamid to appear for cross-examination on May 10 the same year.

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 population 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.

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