Malaysian Gov't, Catholic Church Take Battle Over 'Allah' to High Court

Malaysia's high court began hearing legal arguments Monday over the use of "Allah" by Christians as a translation for God.

While the Catholic Church in Malaysia insists that the word "Allah" is not exclusive to Islam and has been used by Christians and Muslims in Arabic-speaking countries for centuries, Senior Federal Counsel Datuk Kamaluddin argued otherwise, saying that the word is exclusive to Islam and that its sanctity must be protected.

"In our country, if one refers to Allah or mentions kalimah Allah, it will bring to one's mind that it refers to the god for Muslims. Kalimah Allah is sacred to the Muslims and put at the highest position, and its sanctity must be protected," he said Monday, according to local sources

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Furthermore, Kamaluddin added, the Church cannot challenge the home minister's decision to impose a condition on the permit sought by the Church's weekly publication, The Herald.

"You can only challenge if the minister refused to grant a permit," he stated.

The Herald had filed suit against the Malaysian government in December 2007 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.

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, Home Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar 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.

The newspaper's lead counsel, Porres Royan, argued Monday 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.

"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 High Court Justice Lau Bee Lan, according to The Malaysia Star.

"The said publication is a Catholic weekly and is intended for the dissemination of news and information on the Catholic Church in Malaysia and it is not made available to members of the public, in particular to persons professing the religion of Islam," he added, according to the Sun Daily.

Royan also noted that the publication does not contain any material that is likely to cause public alarm or touch on the sensitivities of the religion of Islam.

The hearing is scheduled to resume Tuesday and also comes three months after Malaysian authorities seized 10,000 Bibles imported from Indonesia that refer to God as "Allah."

Last month, the Christian Federation of Malaysia (CFM), the representative body of Christians in Malaysia, called for the immediate release of the Bibles and the 5,000 more that were seized in March.

The network of churches and organizations also issued a re-issued a declaration affirming their commitment to Bahasa Malaysia as their national language, which they say they have and will continue to use "in its entirety" in the life and witness of their churches and organizations.

"And [we] urge all Churches to be vigilant and unceasing in prayers for wisdom on the part of all concerned to amicably resolve this issue and for the maintenance of a united, harmonious and peaceful nation where justice, human rights and human dignity are upheld at all times," CFM leaders expressed in the declaration, first issued in September 1989.

According to the CIA World Factbook, 60.4 percent of Malaysia's 25.7 million people are Muslims. Around 19.2 percent, meanwhile, practice Buddhism, and 9.1 percent ascribe to Christianity.

In general, Islam enjoys special privileges in Malaysia as the dominant religion.

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