Malaysia Christians challenge ban on word 'Allah'

A church in Malaysia and a Christian weekly newspaper are attempting to sue the Malaysian government for banning them from using the word "Allah". They claim that the ban is unconstitutional and violates freedom of religion.

"Allah" is the word for God in the Malay language. However, the government recently declared that the word referred to the Muslim God and could only be used by Muslims.

The government of Malaysia is mainly Muslim and its latest decision adds to concerns that the rights of minorities in the country are not being protected.

The newspaper of the Catholic Church in Malaysia, The Herald, filed suit at the beginning of December following warnings that its permit could be revoked if it did not cease use of the word "Allah" in the Malay language section of its newspaper.

The paper has a circulation of around 12,000 and writes in four languages.

The editor of the paper, Rev Lawrence Andrew said, "We are of the view that we have the right to use the word 'Allah'," he told AP.

The Sabah Evangelical Church of Borneo has also initiated legal proceedings after it was banned from importing Christian books with the word "Allah" in it.

Lim Heng Seng, the lawyer for the church told AP, "The decision to declare 'Allah' as only for Muslims, categorizing this as a security issue, and banning books with the word 'Allah,' is unlawful."

The Herald and the Sabah Evangelical Church have both named Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, the Prime Minister as a co-defendant. Badawi has been named because he also holds the post of internal security minister.

Malaysia, a country of 27 million is around 60 per cent Muslim, 25 per cent Christian and Buddhist and 10 per cent Hindu. Although the constitution of the country officially allows freedom of worship, in practice minority rights are often infringed.

According to AP, in August a church member from Sabah Evangelical Church had three boxes of children's education material confiscated at Kuala Lumpur airport.

Jerry Dusing, the pastor of the church, said he was told that the items were confiscated because they used the word "Allah" and could cause confusion and controversy amongst Muslims. This, they claimed made it a security issue.

Dusing said that the word "Allah" had been used for generations by Malay speakers at Sabah and noted that it is used in the Malay Bible.

He said, "The Christian usage of 'Allah' predates Islam. 'Allah' is the name of God in the old Arabic Bible as well as in the modern Arabic Bible," reports AP.

Dusing also noted that the word "Allah" is commonly used by Christians in countries like Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq and Indonesia.

According to AP, The Herald newspaper has been told that the Malay-language section of its newspaper will be banned in January when its annual permit is renewed.