(Photo: Flickr/Mac Mitchell)
A controversial court ruling in Malaysia has decided that a Christian newspaper is not allowed to use the word "Allah" to refer to God, a move which has been met by strong criticism from Christians.
"The usage of the word 'Allah' is not an integral part of the faith in Christianity," chief judge Mohamed Apandi Ali ruled on Monday, The Guardian reported. "The usage of the word will cause confusion in the community."
Christians in Malaysia, who according to the CIA Factbook make up only 9 percent of the population, have historically used the word "Allah" to refer to God, as has the Malay language version of the newspaper the Herald, but many Muslims, who make up 60 percent of the country, have protested to such usage in publications.
The ruling overturns a previous decision by a lower court in 2009, which allowed the use of "Allah" by the Roman Catholic paper. An appeal is expected to be launched to the highest court in the country.
"I am not discouraged, but dismayed and disappointed that a judgment [could] be made in a manner where the usage of 'Allah' is allowed in the Malay-language Bible but for the weekly [publication] it is prevented," said Father Lawrence Andrew, editor of the Herald.
Muslims outside the administrative capital Putrajaya greeted the decision as a big victory: "As a Muslim, defending the usage of the term 'Allah' qualifies as jihad. It is my duty to defend it," said one man, identified as 39-year old Jefrizal Ahmad Jaafar.
The Christian Federation of Malaysia has said, however, that the ruling will only undermine the unity of the people.
"The various authorities in this country by making an issue of it and by what would appear to be selective action or inaction have only encouraged and fueled further misunderstandings, mistrusts and brokenness between the Muslim and Christian communities," the Christian Federation said, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Other Christian groups have also criticized the verdict:
"We are of the view that this decision affects fundamental religious rights of the minorities in Malaysia. To find that the minority must yield to the majority also sends a frightening message that the minorities' rights are subject to the whims and fancies of the majority," said Viola De Cruz, president of the Catholic Lawyers Society.
BBC News analyst Jennifer Pak in Kuala Lumpur offered that the decision reflects on a political race between the governing Malay-Muslim party, UMNO, and the opposition Islamic party, PAS.
"Christians are so convinced that this issue is about political posturing that most followers say they will continue to use the offending Bibles and use the word 'Allah' in their worship," Pak suggested.
"Not all Muslims back the ban. But one of the most outspoken supporters is an influential group called Perkasa, which is backed by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad – a champion of Malay-Muslim rights."