Sabah church seeks basis for 'Allah' ban, but govt says it’s a ‘secret’

Lawyer Lim Heng Seng argued that it was necessary for the government to reveal information relating to its original ban in 1986 on the word ‘Allah’ in non-Muslim publications. ― Picture by Choo Choy May
Lawyer Lim Heng Seng argued that it was necessary for the government to reveal information relating to its original ban in 1986 on the word ‘Allah’ in non-Muslim publications. ― Picture by Choo Choy May

KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 19 — A Sabah church today asked the courts to order the government to disclose documents showing why it had banned non-Muslims from using the Arabic word “Allah”, but the government objected by saying such documents were classified as “official secrets”.

Lim Heng Seng, the lead counsel for the Sidang Injil Borneo (SIB) Sabah church, argued that it was necessary for the government to reveal information relating to its original ban in 1986 on the word “Allah” in non-Muslim publications.

Noting that the Home Ministry had cited the 1986 government circular after its 2007 seizure of SIB Sabah’s Christian education, Lim said this initial ban was the “root” behind recurring problems faced by local Bahasa Malaysia-speaking Christians who have been using the word “Allah” for hundreds of years.

He described the situation as akin to the “Sword of Damocles” hanging over Malaysian churches’ head, where the 31-year-old ban was not always enforced but would from time to time be used by “little Napoleons” for seizures that would later be reversed after brought to the attention of senior officials like the prime minister or ministers.

“In what way is it justified that the word used for generations is a threat to public order? Show us the documents,” he told the High Court here, arguing that the government could not “out of the blue” stop the Bahasa Malaysia-speaking Christians from using the “Allah” word which they consider sacred.

“We have no such research, we have no such reports prior to or after 1986 that shows Christians using the word ‘Allah’ have caused public disorder,” he further said.

Noting that the government has neither denied nor confirmed the existence of documents which were used for the 1986 ban’s basis, Lim said the government should either furnish the information or clarify that it did not have such documents.

This would then allow the courts to determine if the government had imposed a reasonable restriction — such as when public order is under threat — on the local Christians’ constitutional rights, he said.

‘Official secret’ is just a label?

Senior federal counsel Shamsul Bolhassan had argued that the documents sought by SIB Sabah cannot be disclosed as they fall under the Official Secrets Act 1972 (OSA).

Lim had earlier acknowledged that the government would not be required to reveal the existence of documents if it would hurt public interest, arguing however that the “official secret” phrase used to classify certain government documents is just a “label”.

“Just because the magic word ‘OSA’ is pasted on a certain document, that doesn’t make it injurious to public interest,” Lim argued.

Shamsul had also described the church’s application for document disclosure by the government as a “fishing expedition”, arguing that it was not relevant when it was not shown that the government’s evidence was inaccurate or false.

“So to sum up, we say the applicants have no right for discovery and we say they are not entitled for this discovery application,” he said.

High Court judge Datuk Nor Bee Ariffin said the decision on the church’s discovery of documents application will be delivered on a later date.

The church had sought for two sets of documents, including documents such as letters and meetings minutes containing the reasons for the government’s 1986 “Allah” ban; documents showing confusion among Malaysians or misunderstanding between Muslims and Christians over the use of the word “Allah” in Bahasa Malaysia Christian publications; or showing threats to public order due to non-Muslims’ use of the term.

The second set of documents sought was for those where the government had granted approval to import, publish, produce, distribute or own any Christian publications with the word “Allah”.

Sabah SIB today informed the judge that it was not pursuing its previous application to cross-examine Home Ministry official Barkhiya Shahiruddin, saying that the documents if disclosed or revealed as non-existent would be sufficient for them to proceed with the lawsuit.

The Federal Territories Islamic Religious Council, represented by Zirwatul Hanan, was present in court today as amicus curiae or friend of the court.

Today’s court case was sparked off by the August 15, 2007 seizure of SIB Sabah’s Sunday school materials at the Low Cost Carrier Terminal airport in Sepang, with the education materials for Christian children then returned on January 28, 2008 under the condition that the front page would be stamped with a “cross” sign and the words “ Christian publication”.

SIB Sabah and its president Rev Datuk Jerry Dusing had on December 10, 2007 filed for judicial review against the home minister and government, but the case involving the former’s constitutional rights has yet to be heard on its merits.

Five expert opinions in another ‘Allah’ case

A similar case involving government seizure of Christian materials that were brought in for personal or internal use is Sarawakian Christian Jill Ireland Lawrence Bill’s lawsuit over her compact discs containing the word “Allah”, which will be heard on October 19 in relation to her constitutional rights.

Lim confirmed that three affidavits or sworn statements by three senior local Christian leaders were filed last week, namely Sabah Council of Churches president Bishop Melter Tais, Association of Churches in Sarawak chairman and SIB Sarawak president Rev Datuk Dr Justin Wan, National Evangelical Christian Fellowship Bahasa Malaysia and Orang Asli commission executive secretary Rev Alfred Tais.

The three affidavits relate to facts on the historical and current usage of the word “Allah” and its importance to the Bahasa Malaysia-speaking Christians, Lim said.

Shamsul confirmed that the government had also for the Jill Ireland case filed in two affidavits with expert opinions from Universiti Malaya’s associate professor Dr Khadijah Mohd Khambali @ Hambali and Institute of Islamic Understanding’s (Ikim) main fellow Dr Mohd Sani Badron on the use of the word “Allah”.

Lim said about 60 per cent of the local Christian population have been using Bahasa Malaysia in their religious practice, with many of them from the Bumiputera community in Sabah and Sarawak.

* A previous version of this article contained an error which named the Home Ministry instead of the home minister as one of the respondents of the Sabah church’s lawsuit. It has since been rectified.

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