Borneo churches predate Malaysia, Putrajaya urged to honour religious freedom

The Sabah Council of Churches has urged Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak to check religious intolerance, and to respect the right of Bumiputera Christians to call their god 'Allah'. — Reuters pic
The Sabah Council of Churches has urged Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak to check religious intolerance, and to respect the right of Bumiputera Christians to call their god 'Allah'. — Reuters pic

KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 26 — Fearing an encroachment on its fundamental religious freedoms, the Sabah Council of Churches today reminded the federal government that its institutions in East Malaysia preceded the country's founding in 1963, and called on all Malaysians to recognise and honour the right of Bumiputera Christians to call their god “Allah”.

The council also urged Datuk Seri Najib Razak to urgently rein in extremism and religious intolerance, reminding the prime minister that it was he who had initiated the Global Movement of Moderates in an effort to combat religious extremism.

“The Church in East Malaysia is much, much, older than Malaysia itself,” said the council president, Bishop Datuk Dr Thomas Sen, in a statement.

“Therefore, we expect others will honour our fundamental right to complete freedom of religion regarding the practice and expression of our faith and ministering of our fundamental sacraments of our religion as well as our liturgy, worship and teaching of our Holy Scriptures to our children,” he added.

In the original 20-point agreement drawn up before the formation of Malaysia, it was agreed that there should be no state religion in North Borneo, and the provisions relating to Islam in the present Constitution of Malaya would not apply to North Borneo.

The Sabah Constitution was amended in 1973 by the state government to make Islam the religion of the state of Sabah.

The Sabah Council of Churches' statement follows a forum today on the ‘Allah’ issue, jointly organised by the council, Pastors’ Fellowship Kota Kinabalu and National Evangelical Christian Fellowship Commission on Sabah Affairs.

Held at the Basel Christian Church of Malaysia in Likas, Kota Kinabalu, its panelists spoke on religious freedom, the theological aspects of the local Christians' long-standing use of the word “Allah” and the role of the church in nation-building.

The Sabah Council of Churches also rapped a statement issued by the Selangor Palace earlier this month banning the use of “Allah” word among non-Muslims in the peninsular Malaysian state, claiming it needs urgent clarification concerning the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion.

“It must be remembered that the usage of the Alkitab and the word ‘Allah’ are matters under the constitution and federal laws whereas Islam is a state matter under the respective sultans,” the statement said.

“State laws and gazette orders made by the respective state Islamic Religious Councils apply only to Muslims in these states and not on federal laws or non-Muslims.”

In a move set to complicate Putrajaya’s bid to calm east Malaysian unease over the “Allah” row, the Selangor Sultan had on November 14 renewed his decree that the Arabic word for God be barred to all non-Muslims in the state.

Responding to the recent ruling by the Court of Appeal, Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah Al-Haj has also called for an immediate halt to the word’s usage in the Malay language Bible al-Kitab and the Catholic weekly, The Herald.

The Sabah Council of Churches pointed out that the north Borneo state is “unlike the nine Malay states” in the Malay peninsula, which had historically been ruled by Muslim sultans and where religous matters concerning Islam remain their right.

“We have repeatedly said under the terms of the 20-points to the Malaysia Agreement, Sabah is to continue enjoying complete freedom of religion after the formation of Malaysia in 1963,” the statement said.

The council concluded its statement by pledging its full support to the prime minister in his efforts to counter religious extremism.

“We, therefore, call on him to restore the middle ground for religious tolerance and to respect the constitutional rights of non-Muslims to freedom of religion and the right to manage their own affairs,” the statement said.

In October, the Court of Appeal ruled that the Home Ministry’s decision to ban the use of the word in the Herald was justified, as the use of the word “Allah” was not integral to the practice of the Christian faith.

The ruling — which overturned an earlier High Court decision that the ban was unconstitutional — has since sparked confusion over the use of the word by Christians in their worship, especially with conflicting opinions within the government itself on how far the ruling would affect practising Christians.

Since the ruling, churches in Sabah and Sarawak have become more vocal in pressing for their right to use the term that they say is entrenched in the 20- and 18-point agreements with the two states, insisting they will continue their age-old practice of referring to God as “Allah” in their worship and in their holy scriptures.

The Catholic Church has since appealed to the country’s top court this week for clarity on the religious row that has drawn deep lines between Malaysia’s non-Muslim minorities and its 60 per cent Muslim population.

Several ministers 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”.

According to a 2010 census, Muslims are Malaysia’s largest religious group, followed by Buddhists. Christians are the third largest at 2.6 million, which comes up to about 10 per cent of the entire Malaysian population.

Bumiputera Christians, who form about 64 per cent or close to two-thirds of the Christian community in Malaysia, have used the word “Allah” when praying and speaking in the national language and their native tongues for centuries.

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