Nazri justifies one country, two rules over 'Allah' issue

Nazri pointed out that the Christian bible in peninsular Malaysia is typically in English, but noted that Sabahans and Sarawakians, including Muslims, are fine with Christians using the Arabic word to refer to God, as it is part of their culture. — Picture by Choo Choy May
Nazri pointed out that the Christian bible in peninsular Malaysia is typically in English, but noted that Sabahans and Sarawakians, including Muslims, are fine with Christians using the Arabic word to refer to God, as it is part of their culture. — Picture by Choo Choy May

KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 22 — East Malaysian Christians have to respect the Muslims' exclusive right to describe God as "Allah" in peninsular Malaysia, as peninsular Malaysians have to similarly respect customs in Borneo, Datuk Seri Mohamed Nazri Aziz said today.

The former de facto law minister pointed out that the Christian bible in peninsular Malaysia is typically in English, but noted that Sabahans and Sarawakians, including Muslims, are fine with Christians using the Arabic word to refer to God, as it is part of their culture.

"As much as you want us to respect what you do in Sabah and Sarawak, I'd expect Sabahans and Sarawakians to respect Muslim sensitivities in the peninsula," Nazri told reporters after the Malaysia International Golf Fair Symposium here today.

When asked how Malaysia could be united as one country in light of separate rules on the usage of "Allah", Nazri pointed out that it is Sabah and Sarawak that have different laws for peninsular Malaysians in other matters, such as requiring ICs for travel purposes and work permits, among others.

“This is what they wanted 50 years ago,” said Nazri.

Nazri, who is currently the tourism and culture minister, also noted that state Islamic enactments in the peninsula, except for Penang and the Federal Territories, prohibit the usage of “Allah”, and several other words, in non-Muslim creeds.

“There are no laws, no Islamic enactments in Sabah and Sarawak to disallow the use of Allah,” said Nazri.

“The practice here is that Allah is a reference to God only for the Muslims. In Sabah and Sarawak, it’s different, but in Semenanjung (peninsular Malaysia), it’s sensitive,” he added.

Last week, 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.

Tan Sri Joseph Kurup, minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, insisted yesterday that Christians in peninsular Malaysia, as well as in Sabah and Sarawak, can still describe God as “Allah” in their weekly masses, despite the Court of Appeal ruling.

He said that the court decision, which found that allowing Christians to describe God as “Allah” would cause confusion in the Muslim community, was restricted to the Herald.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak also said yesterday that Christians in Sabah and Sarawak would not be affected by the ruling, and affirmed the validity of the 10-point solution that allows the printing, importation and distribution of the Al-Kitab. 

The Cabinet has, however, not provided any basis for their interpretation which contradicts the opinion of the Malaysian Bar and other lawyers. 

Ministers have also not directly addressed why the government thought the Herald, which is circulated only among Catholics including in the Borneo states, had been singled out for the ban.

Nazri said today that unlike the Herald, copies of the Al-Kitab distributed in peninsular Malaysia need to be stamped with the symbol of the cross and the words “Christian Publication”.

“How do you ensure that the Herald will not be outside internal use?” he questioned.

When asked if Arab Christian tourists who visit Kuala Lumpur can bring in a copy of their bible in Arabic, Nazri said they could, but noted that action could be taken against them if such copies reached the hands of Muslims.

“You have to respect the laws of the country,” he said.

Civil liberties lawyer Syahredzan Johan said yesterday that the Court of Appeal ruling has set a precedent for the authorities to ban non-Muslims from referring to God as “Allah” in future, on the basis that allowing such usage would cause “confusion”.

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