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ICC Note: For years, Malaysia has been widely accepted to be a Muslim-majority nation with a high level of tolerance for religious minorities. This status has, however, deteriorated over the past several years to the point that Malaysia’s Christians are now seriously concerned about their rights. The legal battle currently in Malaysia’s courts over the use of the word “Allah” by non-Christians has become a flash point for anti-Christian sentiment. In 2010, several churches were firebombed after the government ruled in favor of religious minorities. Today the case is again in the courts, sparking fear that more attacks could ensue.  
3/8/2014 Malaysia (WWM) – Malaysian Christians this week have been anxious about their right to practise their faith without state interference or provocation from militant Islam, as three cases concerning religious freedom have come to court.
Much is riding on the legal system to affirm Malaysia’s constitutional guarantee of religious freedom.
Christians in Malaysia have endured steady attacks on their faith during the past year. There have been taunts, such as a banner declaring “Jesus is the son of Allah” attached to railings of a church in the popular resort island of Penang. There have been threats, including petrol bombs hurled at a church, and the seizure of bibles. And there has been the hounding of Rev. Lawrence Andrew, the editor of a Catholic newspaper, who insisted his paper will continue to use the word “Allah” to name God when appropriate, despite his effigy being burnt, protests outside his church, and a charge of sedition being laid against him.
The government’s order allowing only Muslims to use the word “Allah” is particularly galling to Christians in multiracial Malaysia, a nation once tolerant of all creeds. The indigenous Sabah and Sarawak, who constitute 70 per cent of the country’s Christian population, have been using the word in their theological vocabulary — both in worship in the Malay language, or in written form in the Malay Bible, the Alkitab — for more than 100 years.
Yet the government, individual Sultans and state-sponsored Muslim bodies dictate that ‘Allah’ belongs exclusively to Muslim Malays, despite widespread criticism of the policy from Muslim scholars around the world.
Against this backdrop of fear and repression, the Federal Court – the highest judicial body in the land –heard a plea March 5 from the Catholic Herald newspaper to overrule a lower court ruling that barred the publication from using the word “Allah.”
The controversy, which began in 2006 when the government banned the Herald from using the word, has led to acts of provocation against Christians and undermined religious harmony. The Catholic Church contested the order and the High Court restored the newspaper’s constitutional right to use the word in 2009. The government appealed that decision and in October 2013 a three-man Court of Appeal ruled that Malay Muslims had an exclusive claim to the word “Allah,” a word that precedes the birth of Islam.
On March 5, a seven-member bench of the Federal Court, after hearing points of law raised by the Herald’s lawyers, reserved judgment on whether to grant leave for the case to proceed.
The lawyers raised a number of questions, covering ministerial powers and constitutional issues such as freedom of speech and religion. They also challenged the Court of Appeal’s power to decide that the word “Allah” is not integral to the Christian faith and practice.
The state, in asking the court to reject the church’s petition, claimed that Christian usage of the word would endanger national security because it would confuse Muslim Malays, though the Herald had been using the word in its publications for 14 years before it was barred from doing so in 2006. During that period, no problems or incidents came to light regarding public order or safety.
Jason Abbott, director of the Center for Asian Democracy at the University of Louisville in the United States, argued March 4 on his university blog that the “Allah” issue is being stoked by Malaysia’s ruling party, the United Malays National Organization, which has been losing support from the country’s sizeable Chinese and Indian voting blocs, to shore up support among ethnic Malays. The UMNO faces a challenge in two weeks from the opposition in a by-election in Selangor state.

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