Does the home minister have full discretion over ‘Allah’?

Members of Perkasa and other Muslim NGOs outside the Court of Appeal, September 10, 2013. — Picture by Choo Choy May
Members of Perkasa and other Muslim NGOs outside the Court of Appeal, September 10, 2013. — Picture by Choo Choy May

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KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 12 — Vexed that an appellate court overruled its claim to “Allah”, the Catholic Church is appealing to the country’s top court for clarity on the religious row that has drawn deep lines between Malaysia’s non-Muslim minorities and its 60 per cent Muslim population.

In its Federal Court filing yesterday sighted by The Malay Mail Online, the Church submitted a list of 26 questions that concern the Constitution, administrative law and the general conduct of the courts to decide on the dispute that has been left simmering for the last five years after the Home Ministry barred the publication of the word “Allah” in the Bahasa Malaysia section of Catholic weekly, Herald.

Contacted today, Herald editor Father Lawrence Andrew told The Malay Mail Online that the Catholic Church wants to know whether the Court of Appeal was right in overturning the issue of administrative law that was raised earlier by the High Court.

The Church’s appeal also seeks a ruling on whether it is within the courts’ jurisdiction to determine the scope of theological issues of the various religions in the country, he said.

Among the key questions the Catholic Church asked was whether the home minister has absolute discretion to impose such a prohibition.

The Church has previously argued that the word “Allah”, which it uses to refer to “God the Father” and to distinguish it from the two other aspects of the divinity in the Christian concept of the trinity, is allowed to be carried in the native language translations of the bible, including the national Malay language.

The Church also questioned whether claims of potential threats to public order and national security are sufficient grounds to impose restrictions without being subject to a legal challenge.

On the constitutionality of the decision, the Church is asking the apex court whether the government can impose restrictions on the choice of words used in religious books, materials or publications on the grounds that “some persons of another religious group may be confused”.

The Church is seeking an answer as to whether the government’s argument of a potential confusion provides a strong enough reason to deny another religious group its constitutional rights as enshrined under the Federal Constitution.

Also being questioned is the Court of Appeal’s judgment last month, when a panel of three judges unanimously ruled against allowing the Herald to use the word “Allah”, saying that the government did not impugn on the Church’s constitutional rights in banning the use of the word.

On October 14, Justice Datuk Seri Mohamed Apandi Ali, in reading a summary of Court of Appeal judgement, said the home minister had acted well within his powers to disallow the Herald from using the word “Allah” in its Bahasa Malaysia section.

“It is our common finding that the usage of the name ‘Allah’ is not an integral part of the faith and practice of Christianity.

“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,” he said before a packed courtroom.

The Church is asking the Federal Court to determine whether or not it was correct for the lower court to say that the use of “Allah” is not an integral part of the practice of the Christian faith.

The Church also took issue with the appellate court’s move to conduct its own research for supportive or evidential material that were not part of the submissions of either party, questioning whether the action was appropriate.

The application also queried whether the court can rely on “information gathered from Internet research”, without verifying the authoritative value of the source, to determine “what constitutes the essential and integral part of the faith and practice” of Christians.

The Church’s lawyers are expected to serve a copy of its submission to the government today, after which the Federal Court will set a mention date to decide on the date to hear the appeal.

According to a 2010 census, Muslims are Malaysia’s largest religious group, followed by Buddhists.

Christians are the third largest at 2.6 million, which comes up to about 10 per cent of the entire Malaysian population.

Bumiputera Christians, who form about 64 per cent or close to two-thirds of the Christian community in Malaysia, have used the word “Allah” when praying and speaking in the national language and their native tongues for centuries.

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