UN observers want Putrajaya to allow 'Allah' for all

'Herald, the Catholic Weekly,' is seen on the table at its office in Kuala Lumpur February 27, 2009. — Reuters pic
'Herald, the Catholic Weekly,' is seen on the table at its office in Kuala Lumpur February 27, 2009. — Reuters pic

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KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 25 — Putrajaya should lift its ban on use of the word “Allah” in the Catholic Church's weekly paper Herald, the United Nations (UN) observers said today, as global concern grows over religious freedom for Malaysia's non-Muslim minorities.

Frank La Rue, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, said the federal government and the home ministry should allow the Catholic Church to use the Arabic word to refer to their God.

“The Ministry of Home Affairs and the Government of Malaysia should take necessary steps to secure immediately the right to freedom of opinion and expression of Herald – The Catholic Weekly and withdraw unconditionally from further litigation on this issue,” the UN expert said in a press release issued by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

La Rue was backing his colleague Heiner Bielefeldt's call today for the federal government to retract its decision, which was seen to limit the use of the word “Allah” to Muslims only - the country's largest religious community.

In warning of the court case's potential far-reaching impact on religious minorities in Malaysia, Bielefeldt also said that the government should not be dictating or interpreting on religious matters, stressing that freedom of religion belongs to individuals.

“Freedom of religion or belief is a right of human beings, not a right of the State,” said Bielefeldt, who is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief.

“It cannot be the business of the State to shape or reshape religious traditions, nor can the State claim any binding authority in the interpretation of religious sources or in the definition of the tenets of faith,” he added.

Last month, the Court of Appeal ruled that the Home Ministry’s decision to ban the use of the word in the Herald was justified, saying that the use of the word “Allah” was “not an integral part” of the practice of the Christian faith.

Rita Izsák, UN Independent Expert on minority issues, said the ban had effectively breached the local Christian community's freedom to practice their faith, expressing her concern that it could affect the interfaith relations here.

“Discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief constitutes a violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and in this instance is a breach of the rights of a religious minority to freely practice and express their faith as they have done for generations. Such actions may present an obstacle to friendly and peaceful relations between faith communities,” she said today in the same press release.

Since the Court of Appeal ruling, churches in Sabah and Sarawak have become more vocal in pressing for their right to use the term that they say is entrenched in the 20- and 18-point agreements with the two states, insisting they will continue their age-old practice of referring to God as “Allah” in their worship and in their holy scriptures.

On November 11, the Catholic Church filed for appeal at the country’s top court to seek 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 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.

Several ministers also said recently that the 10-point solution issued by Putrajaya in 2011 - which allows the printing, importation and distribution of the Al-Kitab, the Bahasa Malaysia version of the Christian bible, containing the word “Allah” - should stand, despite the appellate court ruling.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak also said previously 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 Peninsular Malaysia.

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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