Police on Monday reported the eighth arson attack on a church in Malaysia since the High Court ruled that non-Muslims can use the word "Allah" to refer to God.
Sometime between 1:30 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. local time, unknown vandals attacked Sidang Injil Borneo Church on the western coast of Malaysia. Burn marks were found on the church's main entrance door, according to local newspapers. But the arson did not affect the interior of the building.
Deputy police chief of Negeri Sembilan state Datuk Abd Manan Mhd Hassan told reporters that officers, a forensic unit and members of the fire department inspected the damaged door after a man reported the scorching Monday morning.
"We believe assailants used petro to set fire to the door but, fortunately, the fire did not spread," Hassan said.
He added that all police patrol cars and officers on duty have been called to monitor places of worship, especially mosques and churches.
"I urge the people to stop such activities," the deputy police chief appealed to Malaysians. "Do not do anything that can disrupt peace and harmony of the country. We will take stern action against those found responsible."
In addition to security provided by police, Muslim non-government organizations have also begun to patrol church areas in the Klang Valley – an area on the west coast that includes the capital Kuala Lumpur – where four churches were targets of arson attacks.
Muslim volunteers began patrolling Monday night in two shifts, from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. until dawn, according to Malaysia's The Star newspaper.
The Muslim NGO's have committed to be the "eyes and ears" of the government, which has condemned the attacks on churches, to ensure the security of Christian places of worship.
Attacks on churches and other Christian-owned buildings occurred after a High Court judge ruled on Dec. 31, 2009, that the word "Allah" is not exclusive to Islam and that the government's Home Ministry is "not empowered" to ban non-Muslims from using the word.
The case began two years ago when The Herald, the Roman Catholic Church's weekly Malaysian publication, filed a suit against the government. The Herald has argued that the word "Allah" predates Islam and is used by Arabic-speaking non-Muslims to refer to God. It filed the suit in order to continue to use the word "Allah" in its Malay language newspaper.
The government had issued the ban on the use of "Allah" by non-Muslims in the 1980s, but the law was never enforced. Just in the last few years the government began enforcing the law and confiscating Bibles that contained the word "Allah."
In response to the High Court's decision, the government appealed the ruling on Jan. 4. It maintains that "Allah" is an Islamic word and if used by non-Muslims could confuse Muslims into converting to those faiths.
According to the CIA World Factbook, 60.4 percent of Malaysia's 25.7 million people ascribe to Islam. Around 19.2 percent, meanwhile, is Buddhist, and 9.1 percent is Christian.
Though the population is predominantly Muslim, Malaysians of different faiths have historically been able to live in peace with one another.
A Christian ministry worker living in Malaysia, whose name was withheld for security reasons, said, "This (church attacks) is totally shocking to us Malaysians, because as far as this generation can remember, this has never happened," according to Mission Network News. "We've always had peaceful relations."
Faced with unprecedented violence, Malaysian Christians are praying and calling for national unity.
"We call on our government to take the necessary steps to educate those who lack understanding and are 'easily confused' to be mature minded in a progressive democratic society," reads the statement by the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship.
"As Christians and responsible citizens of this country, it is our desire to see all quarters promote peace and harmony," the evangelical group states. "NECF calls on all parties to learn to respect each other's basic constitutional and human rights to practice one's faith and religion, recognizing the fundamental boundaries in not interfering with the Scriptures of other faiths."
NECF urges Christians to pray for peace in Malaysia.