Malaysian Christians can use ‘Allah’ in church, Putrajaya says

Catholics attend morning mass at the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes in Klang, Selangor, January 5, 2014. The government issued a statement today saying that Malaysian Christians are free to use 'Allah' in churches. — Picture by Saw Siow Feng
Catholics attend morning mass at the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes in Klang, Selangor, January 5, 2014. The government issued a statement today saying that Malaysian Christians are free to use 'Allah' in churches. — Picture by Saw Siow Feng

KUALA LUMPUR, June 23 — Malaysian Christians are free to call their God “Allah” in churches, a government official said today, reiterating the Najib administration’s commitment to its 10-point solution from 2011.

In a brief two-paragraph statement, the official said the federal government respected the apex court ruling today on the dispute and urged all groups to abide by it.

“Malaysian Christians can still use the word ‘Allah’ in Church. The Government remains committed to the 10-point solution,” the statement said.

The official stressed that the Federal Court’s decision only upheld a ban on the Catholic Church from publishing the word in its newspaper, Herald.

“Malaysia is a multi-faith country and it is important that we manage our differences peacefully, in accordance with the rule of law and through dialogue, mutual respect and compromise,” the statement added.

Christians make up about 10 per cent of the Malaysian population of 30 million.

Almost two-thirds of the Christians are Bumiputera and live in Sabah and Sarawak, where they routinely use Bahasa Malaysia and indigenous languages in their religious practices, which include describing God as “Allah” in their prayers and holy book.

Christian groups and churches nationwide voiced concern today over the validity of the government’s 10-point solution allowing the distribution of Christian bibles containing the word “Allah” in the select states in the wake of the Federal Court’s refusal to hear an appeal on the usage of the word.

Bishop Datuk Dr Thomas Tsen, president of the Sabah Council of Churches, said the Federal Court’s decision in dismissing the Catholic church’s application to appeal the government ban on the word “Allah” in its weekly was a “huge disappointment”.

“People will bring this decision of the highest court and say no, even though the prime minister has the 10-point solution, the highest court still says you cannot freely use the term ‘Allah’ to address your God,” Tsen told The Malay Mail Online today.

“Even though the prime minister did say this will not affect East Malaysia, it’s no guarantee because this is the law. And we wanted the guarantee from the legal side,” he said.

Tsen said Christians in Sabah and Sarawak have for centuries worshipped in the Malay language and have been using the Al-Kitab replete with the word Allah to refer to God.

“Our freedom of religion is being restricted,” he said.

“Since we were born, we have been using the term. That is our language,” Tsen added.

He also expressed concern that the Selangor Islamic authorities might use the Federal Court ruling to justify their seizure of 321 copies of the Malay and Iban-language bibles from the Bible Society of Malaysia (BSM) last January.

A seven-member bench at the country’s highest court decided by a 4-to-3 majority this morning to deny the Catholic Church the right to appeal a lower court decision preventing it from using the word ‘Allah’.

Chief Justice Tun Arifin Zakaria, Court of Appeal President Tan Sri Md Raus Sharif, Chief Judge of Malaya Tan Sri Zulkefli Ahmad Makinudin and Federal Court judge Tan Sri Suriyadi Halim Omar had rejected the Catholic Church’s application.

The dissenting judges were Chief Judge of Sabah and Sarawak Tan Sri Richard Malanjum, and Federal Court judges Datuk Zainun Ali and Tan Sri Jeffrey Tan.

Last year, the Court of Appeal ruled that “Allah” was not integral to the Christian faith and that the home minister was justified in banning the Herald from using the Arabic word on grounds of national security and public order.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s administration issued the 10-point solution shortly before the Sarawak state election in 2011 to end a Home Ministry blockade of shipments of Christian holy scriptures in the Malay language containing the word “Allah.”

The Cabinet, through Minister Datuk Seri Idris Jala, stated in the resolution that the large Bumiputera Christian population in Sabah and Sarawak could use their holy books in the Malay, Indonesian, and indigenous languages.

However, Bahasa Malaysia or Bahasa Indonesia bibles brought into the peninsula must have the symbol of the cross and the words “Christian Publication” printed on the front cover.