WSJ to Malaysia: Drop sedition probe against priest

Muslims rally at the Stadium Sultan Sulaiman car park in Klang, Selangor to protest the use of ‘Allah’ by Malaysian Christians during church worship on January 5, 2014. — Picture by Choo Choy May
Muslims rally at the Stadium Sultan Sulaiman car park in Klang, Selangor to protest the use of ‘Allah’ by Malaysian Christians during church worship on January 5, 2014. — Picture by Choo Choy May

KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 15 — Using the "Allah" card will not score Malaysia or its ruling political party Umno extra points in the long run, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) said and urged authorities here to drop the sedition investigation against Catholic priest Rev Father Lawrence Andrew.

The US-based business news publication also pointed out that a recent poll by Merdeka Center which showed a dip in Umno's approval rating from 50 per cent to 38 per cent in June last year was the sharpest among Malays, while only 52 per cent of the predominant community approve of the government, compared to 67 per cent in August.

"Malaysia's leaders would be wise to note this shift and drop the investigation of Father Andrew," WSJ wrote in an opinion piece yesterday, titled "Between God and Allah", referring to Rev Father Lawrence Andrew, editor of the Catholic weekly, Herald.

"Depriving religious minorities of their rights isn't in the long-term interest of Malaysia or Umno," it added.

Andrew is being investigated for sedition over his statements to new portal The Malaysian Insider last month, which quoting him as saying that churches in Selangor will continue to refer to God as "Allah" in their worship.

The Catholic priest is at the centre of a long-simmering religious row between Malaysia’s Muslim-majority and Christian minority in their tussle for the right to use the Arabic word for God.

The magazine, which also covers current affairs worldwide, highlighted the Pakatan Rakyat opposition bloc's claim to winning the popular vote in Election 2013.

The 13-party BN won just 133 federal seats in Election 2013 after the ruling coalition ceded an additional seven seats to the DAP-PKR-PAS pact, performing even worse than in the political tsunami of 2008 where it lost its customary two-thirds parliamentary majority.

WSJ suggested voter support for the Barisan Nasional giant will continue to wane unless the ruling coalition is able to pull up its socks on governance and economic matters rather than play to a select hardcore conservatives.

"These concerns helped the opposition coalition win the popular vote last year for the first time since independence.

"Even the Islamist wing of the opposition, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), has focused on good governance rather than using the Allah controversy to score political points," said WSJ.

Religious tensions in the country flared up again shortly after the October Court of Appeal verdict, which also saw the Selangor Sultan issue a royal decree last November prohibiting non-Muslims from referring to God as "Allah" and citing a 1988 state law that bans such usage.

In the critical opinion piece, WSJ said that playing the religious card to attract Malay-Muslim voters was a "convenient" way for Umno to shift public discourse away from clean elections and corruption.

"Umno is fanning religious tensions for political gain...  They are not doing anything against the law"," WSJ said.

It observed that Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has defended anti-Christian protesters in Selangor.

Muhyiddin, who is also Umno deputy president, has openly declared Muslim hardliners who have been baying for a crackdown on Christians for purportedly using "Allah" to describe their God, were only carrying out royal decree and were not violating the law.

Last October, the Court of Appeal overturned a High Court ruling that had favoured the Catholic Church in its suit against the Home Ministry after the Herald was banned from publishing the word "Allah".

The case is now pending a February 24 hearing for leave of appeal at the Federal Court.