KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — The Catholic Church is gearing up for an expected tough fight Wednesday at Malaysia’s highest court when it argues for the right to appeal a lower court decision banning it from using the word “Allah” (which is really just Arabic for GOD) in its newspaper.
Agence France-Presse/Getty Images Malaysian activists pose for pictures as they hold flowers with a Catholic priest, Michael Chua (C) in front of the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes during a rally in solidarity after Malaysian Islamic authorities seized hundreds of Bibles from a Christian group over the use of the word “Allah” in Klang, outside Kuala Lumpur on Jan. 5.
The lower court ruled the word is exclusive to Muslims, who make up the majority of the country currently. Historically Malaysia was a Buddhist.
The Roman Catholic Church though, counters that using “Allah” for its Malaysian Malay-speaking members, makes sense as the members really have no other word for Him as all others have been banned.
The decision – which could come on the same day or within weeks — will have far-reaching implications for religious minorities and the news media in the generally moderate Malaysia, where conservative Muslims have been asserting themselves.
Christians argue that, while Islam is the country’s official religion, the federal constitution extends significant protections and rights to religious minorities.
“For Bahasa-speaking Christians, the word ‘Allah’ is fundamental. If you are banned from using the word ‘Allah,’ then what is there left for you to practice in your religion?” said Mr. Ng Kam Weng, the research director of Kairos Research Centre, a Christian think tank in Malaysia that supports allowing Christian churches to use the word “Allah.”
The case comes as Malaysian courts are looking at two other cases related to Christian rights. A court on Thursday is to possibly set a date for a Christian native woman’s argument that she had the right to possess Christian CDs that use “Allah.” Meanwhile, the Borneo Evangelical Church will ask a court to be allowed to proceed with a case arguing it can buy and use Bibles that contain the word “Allah.” The church’s plea had been scheduled for Tuesday, but was postponed until April 3.
“The current court cases can be seen as a litmus test of the level of acceptance and tolerance of a pluralistic society governed by the tenets of the federal constitution,” said the Rev. Hermen Shastri, the general secretary of the Council of Churches of Malaysia, which supports the Christian side in the cases. “In this sense, Malaysia stands at the threshold of a new venture into the future.”
Of Malaysia’s 29.6 million people, 60% are Muslim and 9% are Christian. Buddhism is no longer a significant number to show up in the stats.