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High Court hears Allah case in Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR (SE): The Church in Malaysia is involved in a case before the highest court in the land, which could serve as a litmus test on the multicultural health of its multi-ethnic and multi-religious population.

At stake is the right of the majority of Christians, who are Malay-speaking, to use the word Allah for God. The Christian Federation of Malaysia says that 64 per cent of Christians in Malaysia use Malay exclusively in worship and prayer, as well as for their printed bibles.

The Catholic Church argued before the High Court on March 3 that a lower court decision banning it from using the word Allah should be overturned.

The case was adjourned to a date which has yet to be set after the Church and the government presented their arguments.

The case goes back to 2007, when the then-home minister, Syed Hamid Albar, issued a prohibition against the Catholic newspaper, The Herald, from using Allah, as well as other words he said were to be the exclusive domain of the Islamic faith.

The then-archbishop of Kuala Lumpur, Archbishop Murphy Pakiam, filed suit to overturn the prohibition. In 2009, the High Court found in favour of the Church, but last October the government successfully appealed the decision.

The court decision said, “The use of the name Allah is not an integral part of the faith and practice of Christianity.” It also singled out The Herald for mention.

The Wall Street Journal quoted a lawyer for the Church, Benjamin Dawson, as saying on March 4 that one key issue in the case is whether the home minister had the authority to ban the Church from using the word in the first place.

It also involves establishing whether the court has authority to review a minister’s decision.

“The central issue in this case is whether fundamental liberties under the Malaysian Constitution are subject to Article 3 (1), which provides that Islam is the official religion of the country,” Dawson told The Wall Street Journal.

However, he added that among the fundamental liberties are the rights to profess and practice one’s religion and for every religious group to manage its own religious affairs.

AsiaNews reported another lawyer for the Church, Cyrus Das, as saying that the matter is before the court because of its great public importance. 

Reflecting the importance of the case to the public are the seven judges sitting on the bench, which is said to be unique in Malaysia’s legal history.

The man at the centre of the case is the editor of The Herald, Father Andrew Lawrence. He maintains that the word Allah is a general word for God that has been in use in the Malay language for centuries.

A Latin-Malay dictionary published 400 years ago lists it as a biblical word for God that had been in use even prior to that date.

Father Lawrence said that the appeal was filed in the High Court to defend the rights of minority groups in the country, as well as to promote harmony and peaceful coexistence among the various groups that make up the population.

He stresses that the issue is not about religion, but about law.

However, the case has proven to be a highly emotive issue in Malaysia. Violence has been perpetrated against Christians and churches have been attacked. Around 500 people gathered outside the courthouse shouting, “Allah cannot be used by outsiders or Christians.”

But at the same time in a different part of town, another group gathered at the Bangsar Shopping Mall handing out flowers and balloons in solidarity with the Christian people.

Marina Mahathir, the daughter of former prime minister, Mahathir bin Mohamad, was among them. She told AsiaNews, “We are tired of all this ugliness and this climate of hate.”


The group insisted that there is only one God, saying, “We are all brothers and sisters and we all answer to Allah.”

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