Recognise ‘Allah’ as Christian right, Sarawak churches tell Putrajaya

Two-thirds of Christians in Malaysia are Bumiputera and are largely based in Sabah and Sarawak. They number some 1.6 million and use Bahasa Malaysia and indigenous languages in their prayer services and in the Al-Kitab, the Malay-language bible. — Picture by Choo Choy May
Two-thirds of Christians in Malaysia are Bumiputera and are largely based in Sabah and Sarawak. They number some 1.6 million and use Bahasa Malaysia and indigenous languages in their prayer services and in the Al-Kitab, the Malay-language bible. — Picture by Choo Choy May

KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 13 — Sarawak churches sought today to end the raging debate over “Allah”, urging Putrajaya to put its foot down on the matter by formally recognising the use of the Arabic word as an integral part of the Christian faith.

Such a stand, however, would run contrary to the Court of Appeal’s decision last month, which declared it illegal for Christians to publish the word “Allah” in the Malay language section of Catholic weekly Herald.

But Archbishop Datuk Bolly Lapok, chairman of the Association of Churches in Sarawak, said Christians on both sides of the South China Sea need more than what he labelled a mere “display of ad hoc benevolence” from the federal government.

“We need a tangible commitment from the authorities to respect and uphold the freedom of religion guaranteed by the Federal Constitution, which is the supreme law of the nation,” he said in a statement here.

He said the government must therefore commit to three requests: to recognise and affirm the use of “Allah” by Christians; the fact that Borneo churches expect the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom to be respected; and that the 10-point Cabinet solution in 2011 must be honoured.

“With greatest respect, we asked that these rights be given its rightful place and that religious bigotry, racism and extremism should not be allowed to show its ugly head.

“Mutual respect and acceptance of each other in the community of faith should be the order of the day in a plural society like Malaysia,” continued Lapok.

He said it made “no sense” that government administrators have been claiming the Court of Appeal’s ruling last month applies solely to the Herald or that only Christians in east Malaysia could use “Allah”.

Christians from Sabah and Sarawak often travel to and from the peninsula for work, he pointed out, adding that many even carry the Alkitab, the Malay language Bible, with them.

“Even non-natives from West Malaysia own and read the Alkitab as Bahasa Malaysia is our national language,” he said in a statement here.

“It also makes no sense for the Court of Appeal’s recent judgement to be interpreted as being applicable only to the Herald,” Lapok said.

“While the Herald may have been the case brought before the court, it is our view that the judges have overstepped their boundaries in determining that using the word ‘Allah’ was not ‘integral to the Christian’ faith,” he added, repeating words from the judges’ panel in the October decision.

In making such a judgment, Lapok said the judges had arrogated themselves the right to “determine religion”, a right he said belongs to no existing human court of law.

“It is the fundamental right of every religion to determine its expression and practise of its own faith,” he said.

As such, Lapok said any attempt at all to forbid the use of “Allah” by non-Muslims would be deemed wholly unacceptable and a “flagrant disregard” and betrayal of the Malaysia Agreement, which guaranteed the right to religious freedom.

He maintained that Bumiputera churches in east Malaysia would continue to use the word in their services, prayers, praise, liturgy, worship and religious education, insisting that its use is fundamental to all aspects of the Christian faith.

On October 14, three Muslim judges in the Court of Appeal unanimously overturned the 2009 Kuala Lumpur High Court ruling that allowed the Catholic Church to use the word “Allah” in the Bahasa Malaysia section of its weekly publication, Herald.

“It is our common finding that the usage of the name ‘Allah’ is not an integral part of the faith and practice of Christianity,” Justice Datuk Seri Mohamed Apandi Ali said in the ruling.

“Such usage, if allowed, will inevitably cause confusion within the community,” he added.

In an immediate response, churches in Sabah and Sarawak said that they would continue their age-old practice of referring to God as “Allah” in their worship and in their holy scriptures.

Many also railed against the decision, triggering several ministers to insist that the court ruling was restricted to the Herald and would not affect the Christians in Sabah and Sarawak.

They have 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.

The Najib 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, had 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.

Datuk Seri Panglima Dr Maximus Ongkili, the Energy, Green Technology and Water Minister, said recently that the Court of Appeal’s verdict should, “in no way”, affect the 10-point solution.

Minister in The Prime Minister’s Department Tan Sri Joseph Kurup also reportedly said recently that the Cabinet has decided to stick to the 10-point solution.

Deputy Home Minister Datuk Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar and de facto law minister Nancy Shukri have said that the court ruling was restricted to the Herald.

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 peninsula Malaysia.

They were silent, however, on whether the Herald ruling meant the publication could be distributed in Sabah and Sarawak.

Two-thirds of Christians in Malaysia are Bumiputera and are largely based in Sabah and Sarawak. They number some 1.6 million and use Bahasa Malaysia and indigenous languages in their prayer services and in the Al-Kitab, the Malay-language bible.

Christians comprise around 9 per cent of Malaysia’s 28-million strong population, the majority of whom are Malay-Muslims.

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