KUALA LUMPUR: The Malaysian government on Monday (Mar 15) appealed a court's decision to overturn a decades-old official ban and allow Christians in the Muslim-majority country to use "Allah" to refer to God.
The word has long been divisive in multi-ethnic Malaysia, with Christians complaining that attempts to stop them using it highlight the growing influence of conservative Islam.
But some Muslims accuse the sizeable Christian minority of overstepping boundaries, and the subject has fuelled religious tensions and sparked violence over the years.
Last week the Kuala Lumpur High Court ruled that Christians can use "Allah" in publications, siding with a member of the minority and striking down a ban that dated back to 1986. [See below.]
But the government lodged a challenge at the court of appeal saying it was "not satisfied" with the ruling, according to documents seen by AFP.
Authorities have long argued that allowing non-Muslims to use "Allah" could be confusing, and entice Muslims to convert.
The case began 13 years ago when officials seized religious materials in the local Malay language from a Christian at Kuala Lumpur airport that contained the word "Allah".
The woman - Jill Ireland Lawrence Bill, a member of a Malaysian indigenous group - then launched a legal challenge against the ban on Christians using the term.
Malaysia has largely avoided overt religious conflict in recent decades, but tensions have been growing.
In 2014 a church was hit with petrol bombs, while Islamic authorities have seized Bibles containing the word "Allah".
Less than 10 per cent of Malaysia's 32 million people are estimated to be Christians, coming from mostly ethnic Chinese, Indian or indigenous backgrounds, while 60 per cent are ethnically Malay Muslims.
Malaysia high court rules that Christians may use the word ‘Allah’ in religious publications10 Mar 2021
KUALA LUMPUR: In a landmark ruling, Malaysia’s high court said on Wednesday (Mar 10) that Christians are allowed to use the word “Allah” in religious publications for educational purposes.
Three other words: Baitullah (the Arabic word for God’s house), Kaabah (the building at the center of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, which is the direction of prayer for Muslims around the world) and solat (pray) can also be used in religious publications, according to Bernama.
In delivering her judgement, Court of Appeal Judge Nor Bee Ariffin said that a 1986 directive by the home ministry to ban the use of the four words by Christians was an "illegality" and "irrationality".
"It is no dispute it (the material) was for her personal religious edification," the judge was quoted as saying by the Star, referring to an incident in 2008 when customs officers at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport seized eight CDs from Ms Jill Ireland Lawrence Bill, a Malaysian Christian from Sarawak.
The CDs were entitled “Cara Hidup Dalam Kerajaan Allah (Way Of Life In The Kingdom Of God)”, “Hidup Benar Dalam Kerajaan Allah (Living Righteously In The Kingdom Of God)” and “Ibadah Yang Benar Dalam Kerajaan Allah (True Worship In The Kingdom of God)”.
The judge also noted that Christian communities in Sabah and Sarawak have been using “Allah” for generations in the practice of their faith.
“The fact that they have been using it for 400 years cannot be ignored,” she was quoted as saying by the Malaysian Insight.
Following the seizure, Ms Jill Ireland filed for judicial review against the home minister and the Malaysian government. She also sought official recognition of her constitutional rights to practise her religion and non-discrimination under the relevant articles of the country’s Constitution.
The High Court ruled in 2014 that the home ministry was wrong to seize the CDs and ordered them to be returned to Ms Jill Ireland.
In 2015, the Court of Appeal sent the two constitutional issues back to the High Court to be heard. The case was heard by the High Court in 2017 but the announcement of the decision was deferred several times until Wednesday.
This was because the parties were said to be discussing possible resolutions outside the court, as well as delays brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Senior Federal Counsel Shamsul Bolhassan, who acted for the home ministry and the government, confirmed to Bernama that the four words - Allah, Baitullah, Kaabah and solat can be used by Christians for their religious publications.
"However, publications that contain the four words must carry a disclaimer that (they are) intended for Christians only as well as a cross symbol," he said.