Malaysia’s high court is expected to announce its decision this week on a case contesting whether the government of the predominantly Muslim country can bar Christian groups from referring to God as “Allah.”
Earlier this month, Court Justice Lau Been Lan set Dec. 30 as the date he would rule on the case, which pits the federal government against the weekly publication of the Catholic Church of Malaysia.
While the Catholic Church maintains that the word “Allah” is not exclusive to Islam, the government has argued otherwise, saying that it is not only exclusive but that its usage by non-Muslims could pose a threat to national security and cause misunderstanding and confusion among Muslims.
Furthermore, lawyers for the government say the Church cannot challenge the decision of Home Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar to impose a condition on the printing permit sought by the Church’s weekly publication, The Herald.
Under the Printing Presses and Publication Act of 1984, Malaysia’s home minister has the power to impose a prohibition as a condition, and in the case of The Herald, the home minister reportedly prohibited the usage of the word "Allah" on the grounds of national security and to avoid misunderstanding and confusion among Muslims.
"The use of the word ‘Allah’ by other religions may arouse sensitivity and create confusion among Muslims," explained Abdullah Zin, the de-facto minister for Islamic affairs, to the local press last year.
The Herald, however, claims that the ban is unconstitutional and violates freedom of religion.
In December 2007, the Herald had filed suit against the Malaysian government after the government threatened to revoke its printing permit if it did not cease use of the word “Allah” in the Malay language section of its newspaper.
Lawyers on behalf of the newspaper have argued that the word “Allah” is essential for worship and faith instruction within the country’s Bahasa Malaysia-speaking Catholic community.
They've also insisted that the home minister acted outside the Printing Presses and Publications Act.
Similar arguments have been made following the confiscation of more than 15,000 Bibles this year over their reference to God as "Allah."
Church leaders, both locally and internationally, argue that "Allah" has been used for centuries to mean "God" in Malay and other languages with Arabic influence.
“Malay has borrowed from Arabic, just as it has from Sanskrit and Portuguese,” the Rev. Hermen Shastri, general secretary of the Council of Churches of Malaysia, explained to CNN last month.
Following a two-day hearing earlier this month, the high court announced its decision to rule on the case on Dec. 30.
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.