Malaysia court strikes down ban on Christians using the word 'Allah' in publications

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After a decades-long legal battle, a Malaysian court has overturned a policy banning Christians from using the word "Allah” in publications in the Muslim-majority country.

On Wednesday, the Kuala Lumpur High Court deemed unconstitutional a 35-year-old government ban on the use of “Allah” and three other Arabic words by Christian publications.

An earlier court ruling had stated that Allah should be reserved exclusively for Muslims, as the word “is not an integral part of the faith in Christianity” and could cause confusion among religious groups. 

Three other words — “kaabah” (Islam’s holiest shrine in Mecca), “baitullah” (house of God) and “solat” (prayer) — were also banned in a 1986 government directive.

This week, government counsel Shamsul Bolhassan was quoted as saying by CNA that the four words can now be used in Christian materials following the court’s ruling, as long as it clearly states that materials are intended for Christians only and a symbol of a cross is displayed.

The case began 13 years ago when officials seized religious materials in the local Malay language from a Christian at Kuala Lumpur International Airport that contained the word “Allah.”

The Christian woman — Jill Ireland Lawrence Bill, a member of an indigenous group — then launched a legal challenge against the policy.

On Wednesday, the Kuala Lumpur High Court sided with her, ruling she had the right not to face discrimination on the grounds of her faith. The judge also ruled the ban on Christians using “Allah” was “unlawful and unconstitutional,” her lawyer Annou Xavier said.

“The court has now said the word Allah can be used by all Malaysians,” Xavier said, according to The Associated Press. “Today’s decision entrenches the fundamental freedom of religious rights for non-Muslims in Malaysia” enshrined in the constitution.

Christians in Malaysia, who make up only 9% of the population, have historically used the word "Allah" to refer to God, in their Bibles, prayers and songs. Though most Christians in the country worship in English, Tamil or other Chinese dialects, some Malay-speaking people have no other word for God but “Allah.”

Controversy over the use of the word "Allah" has been ongoing for several years in Malaysia, sparking tension between religious groups.

In 2014, Malaysia’s top court denied a Catholic Church the right to use the word “Allah” in the Malay-language edition of a church newspaper. That same year, a church was hit with petrol bombs.

In recent years, Islamic authorities have seized more than 20,000 Bibles that used the word “Allah,” according to International Christian Concern. 

Open Doors USA’s 2021 World Watch List ranks Malaysia as the 46th-worst country in the world when it comes to Christian persecution. In Malaysia, Christians have suffered from many forms of Islamic repression. 

According to Open Doors USA, which monitors persecution in over 60 countries, Catholics and Methodists are monitored by authorities in Malaysia, but nontraditional Protestant groups are more often targeted because they are usually more active in evangelizing. Open Doors reports that it is illegal to share the Gospel with Malaysian Muslims.

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