(Photo: Reuters/Samsul Said)
The interdenominational Christian Federation of Malaysia has warned that believers in the country face "serious negative consequences" after the Supreme Court again confirmed that a Catholic newspaper is not allowed to use the word "Allah" to refer to God.
"We continue to support that the decision of the Court of Appeal, upheld by the Federal Court, is seriously flawed in many respects. According to Justice, many erroneous and inaccurate observations had to be corrected. Now there will be serious negative consequences for the religious freedom of Christians in Malaysia," the group said, according to Fides News Agency on Monday.
The long-standing case concerns the Catholic weekly newspaper "Herald," which was initially told in 2007 by Malaysian authorities to stop using the word "Allah." While in 2009 a lower court defended the newspaper's right to use the term, in October 2013 chief judge Mohamed Apandi Ali ruled that "the usage of the word 'Allah' is not an integral part of the faith in Christianity," and that it would "cause confusion in the community."
The federal court confirmed that verdict on Monday in a four to three decision, but clarified that Christians would still be allowed to use the word "Allah" in church.
"Malaysia is a multi-faith country and it is important that we manage our differences peacefully, in accordance with the rule of law and through dialogue, mutual respect and compromise," the government's statement said.
Christian Federation of Malaysia said that it remains to be seen whether this promise will be adhered to. The group pointed out that there are already a number of cases pending before the courts regarding the usage of the word by Christians.
"We will see if, in these other cases, the judges choose the path of defending freedom of religion and expression in Malaysia," the Federation said, and asked the Christian community in Malaysia to "remain steadfast in their faith in the face of such prolonged adversity."
CNN pointed out that the ruling creates much confusion in the Muslim-dominated country, where Christians make up only around 9 percent. Although Christians have historically used "Allah" to refer to God in the Malay language, as has the "Herald," Islamic believers have protested such usage in publications.
Father Lawrence Andrew, editor of the newspaper, said that it remains unclear what the implications of the court's decision will be.
"We are in limbo," Andrew admitted. "We need to fight this case to end, because we have to fight for justice when justice is derided or denied."
Muslim activists reportedly celebrated outside the court building on Monday, shouting "Allahuakbar" (God is great).
Perkasa, a conservative Muslim group, said: "We thank Allah because the court's decision has favored us this time. We hope that this is no longer an issue in the peninsular, which does not allow others (to use) the term."
Human rights groups like Amnesty International have condemned the court's decision, however, and argued that it needs to be reversed.
"This ban violates the right to freedom of expression. The idea that non-Muslims could face prosecution for using a particular word is deeply disturbing," said Amnesty International's Malaysia researcher, Hazel Galang-Folli.
"The ban is not just repressive, it is also dangerous. It risks further inflaming religious tensions in Malaysia by denying its people the right to freedom of religion."