Malaysia on Friday said it charged three Muslim men over the firebombing of a church that took place after a court ruled in favor of non-Christians using the word "Allah" to refer to God.
All three suspects are in their 20's and face a maximum prison sentence of up to 20 years if convicted of "mischief by fire" with the intention of destroying a place of worship. The suspects pleaded not guilty in a Kuala Lumpur court on Friday and a trial date was not immediately scheduled. The three are the first suspects to be indicted on the charge of firebombing a church.
Last week, Malaysian police announced they arrested eight people suspected in an arson attack on the Metro Tabernacle church, located in the suburbs of Kuala Lumpur. The other five suspects have been released without charge.
The Metro Tabernacle was the first of eleven churches attacked by unknown assailants after the High Court ruled in December that it is unconstitutional to ban non-Muslims from using the word "Allah" to refer to God. Arabic speaking non-Muslims, including Christians, have for centuries used "Allah" as a translation for "God."
However, the government argues that the word "Allah" is an Islamic word and if used by non-Muslims could confuse Muslims into converting to those faiths. The Malaysian government appealed the court ruling less than a week after it was issued.
The current "Allah" row began two years ago when the Roman Catholic Church filed the case after its weekly Malaysian publication, The Herald, was barred from using the word "Allah."
Though the government had a ban on the use of "Allah" by non-Muslims in place since the 1980s, the law was never enforced. Only in the last few years did the government begin to enforce the law and confiscate Bibles that contained the word "Allah."
The court ruling has sparked considerable tension between the Muslim and Christian communities.
Besides the firebombing of churches, the ruling has also resulted in attacks on a Sikh temple, three mosques and two Muslim prayer halls. On Wednesday, the heads of pigs were found near two mosques. Muslims consider pigs to be unclean.
Attacks, vandalism and other hostile acts in recent weeks have raised fear that Malaysia's history of religious and ethnic harmony will be shattered.
According to the CIA World Factbook, 60.4 percent of Malaysia's 25.7 million people ascribe to Islam. Around 19.2 percent of the people are Buddhist and 9.1 percent are Christian. Ethnic Chinese and Indians practice Buddhism, Christianity or Hinduism.