Christians in Malaysia have the constitutional right to use the word "Allah" to refer to God, the country's high court declared Thursday.
In the landmark ruling, Judge Datuk Lau Bee Lan announced 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.
"This … means that the Bahasa Malaysia-speaking community of the Christian faith can now continue to freely use the word 'Allah' without any interference from the authorities," the Rev. Fr. Lawrence Andrew, editor of the Roman Catholic Church's weekly Malaysian publication The Herald, told reporters in Kuala Lumpur Thursday.
Malaysia's Catholic Church had filed a lawsuit against the government late 2007 after the government threatened to revoke The Herald's printing permit if it did not cease use of the word "Allah" in the Malay language section of its newspaper.
While Home Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar prohibited The Herald from using of the word "Allah" on the grounds of national security and to avoid misunderstanding and confusion among Muslims, the Catholic Church argued that the barring of non-Muslims from using the word "Allah" is unconstitutional and violates freedom of religion.
The Church's lead counsel, Porres Royan, argued earlier this month that the word "Allah" was essential for worship and faith instruction within the country's Bahasa Malaysia-speaking Catholic community.
Royan also insisted that the minister had also acted outside the Printing Presses and Publications Act of 1984, which grants the home minister the power to impose a prohibition as a condition on the permit sought by The Herald.
"The Act was not meant to regulate any religious groups in the practice and propagation of their faith including through the use of religious publications," he told the judge on the first day of this month's two-day hearing, according to The Malaysia Star.
Lawyers for the government, meanwhile, argued that the ban on the use of the word "Allah" in The Herald does not affect the publication's freedom of religion nor that of other Christians.
"The applicant has also failed to show that the use of the word 'Allah' is a basic teaching in the Christian religion," said Senior Federal Counsel Mohamad Naser Disa on the second day of this month's hearing.
According to The Associated Press, government lawyers said they will consult with the Home Ministry before deciding whether to appeal Thursday's verdict in a higher court, where the ban could still be reinstated. They reportedly have one month to appeal.
Despite the threat of appeal, Christians in Malaysia have hailed Thursday's decision as a victory for freedom of religion in the Muslim-majority country.
The controversy over non-Muslim "Allah" usage had resulted in the government's confiscation of more than 15,000 Bibles earlier this year and drawn the attention of Christians internationally as well.
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.
In general, Muslims enjoy special privileges in Malaysia as Islam is the dominant religion.