Appeal Court’s ‘Allah’ opinion not binding on lower courts, lawyer argues

Lawyer Annou Xavier (second from right) and Bible Society Malaysia member Albert Tais (third from right) arrive at the KL High Court, June 30, 2014. Lim said the Federal Court had ruled that the theological argument adopted by the lower court in the recent ‘Allah’ case between the Catholic Church and Putrajaya was a mere ‘obiter’. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa
Lawyer Annou Xavier (second from right) and Bible Society Malaysia member Albert Tais (third from right) arrive at the KL High Court, June 30, 2014. Lim said the Federal Court had ruled that the theological argument adopted by the lower court in the recent ‘Allah’ case between the Catholic Church and Putrajaya was a mere ‘obiter’. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

KUALA LUMPUR, June 30 — The courts cannot use theological grounds to determine the legality of the government's decision to confiscate Christian compact discs containing the word "Allah", a lawyer representing Jill Ireland Lawrence Bill said today.

Lead counsel Lim Heng Seng said the Federal Court had ruled that the theological argument adopted by the lower court in the recent "Allah" case between the Catholic Church and Putrajaya was a mere "obiter" — an opinion that is not binding on or set any legal precedent on the use of the Arabic word for God.

Lim added that the apex court also ruled that no other court but the Federal Court can decide on constitutional matters, meaning that there is no precedent on the matter that binds the High Court to decide on Jill's case.

When delivering its judgement in October last year, the appellate court ruled that the use of the word "Allah" was not an integral part of the practice of the Christian faith when striking out the Catholic Church's appeal against a federal ban on the use of the word in the Malay section of its Herald weekly publication.

Philip Koh Tong Ngee, who held a watching brief on behalf of the Malaysian Consultative Council on Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST), added on to Jill's submmission that the ministry's act in confiscating the CDs as an act of intrusion on the practices of minority religious groups.

Koh noted that minority religious groups are promised the freedom to manage their own affairs under Article 11(3) of the Federal Constitution, and that it is not for the courts to "enter a theological thicket" and make rulings based on interpretations of religion.

Senior Federal Counsel Munahyza Mustafa countered that the minister's decision was a preemptive action as there was the risk that the CDs could be widely distributed and confuse Muslims.

Munahyza stressed that the risk of confusion is real as the intepretation of the word "Allah" refers to "oneness" while the Christian intepretation refers to the Holy Trinity.

High Court Judge Justice Datuk Zaleha Yusof has set July 21 to deliver her judgement.

On May 11, 2008, the Home Ministry confiscated eight CDs bearing the word “Allah” from Jill Ireland at the Low Cost Carrier Terminal airport in Sepang, prompting her to challenge its decisions in court.

In August the same year, the Bumiputera Christian filed for judicial review of the Home Ministry’s actions and a return of the CDs, and she is seeking for a declaration that she has the right to own, use and import materials containing the word “Allah”.

The case was previously postponed to allow the Federal Court to dispose of the Catholic Church’s case.

Christians make up close to 10 per cent or 2.6 million of the Malaysian population of 30 million.

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