Malaysia court rules non-Muslims cannot use 'Allah'

Muslim demonstrators chant slogans outside Malaysia's Court of Appeal in Putrajaya, outside Kuala Lumpur 14 October 2013 The court case has sparked debate in Muslim-majority Malaysia

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A Malaysian court has ruled that non-Muslims cannot use the word Allah to refer to God, even in their own faiths, overturning a 2009 lower court ruling.

The appeals court said the term Allah must be exclusive to Islam or it could cause public disorder.

People of all faiths use the word Allah in Malay to refer to their Gods.

Christians argue they have used the word, which entered Malay from Arabic, to refer to their God for centuries and that the ruling violates their rights.

One Malaysian Christian woman said the ruling would affect the community greatly.

Analysis

The verdict does not come as a surprise to the two million Christians in Malaysia. Many of them believe that the case stems from a tight race between the governing Malay-Muslim party, UMNO, and the opposition Islamic party, PAS.

The Allah ban is seen as an attempt by UMNO to boost its Islamic credentials and win back votes. It's an issue that crops up in the government-linked media ahead of an election and promptly dwindles after the vote.

Christians are so convinced that this issue is about political posturing that most followers say they will continue to use the offending Bibles and use the word Allah in their worship.

Not all Muslims back the ban. But one of the most outspoken supporters is an influential group called Perkasa, which is backed by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad - a champion of Malay-Muslim rights.

"If we are prohibited from using the word Allah then we have to re-translate the whole Bible, if it comes to that," Ester Moiji from Sabah state told the BBC.

'Disappointed and dismayed'

The 2009 ruling sparked tensions, with churches and mosques attacked.

It came after the government said that a Catholic newspaper, The Herald, could not use the word in its Malay-language edition to describe the Christian God.

The newspaper sued, and a court ruled in their favour in December 2009. The government then launched an appeal.

Upholding the appeal on Monday, chief judge Mohamed Apandi Ali said: "The usage of the word Allah is not an integral part of the faith in Christianity. The usage of the word will cause confusion in the community."

The Herald editor Reverend Lawrence Andrew said he was "disappointed and dismayed", and would appeal against the decision.

"It is a retrograde step in the development of law in relation to the fundamental liberty of religious minorities," he said.

The newspaper's supporters have argued that Malay-language Bibles have used Allah to refer to the Christian God since before Malaysia was formed as a federal state in 1963.

"Allah is a term in the Middle East and in Indonesia it is a term both for Christians and Muslims. You cannot say that in all of the sudden it is not an integral part. Malay language is a language that has many borrowed words, Allah also is a borrowed word."

However, some Muslim groups have said that the Christian use of the word Allah could be used to encourage Muslims to convert to Christianity.

Editor of Catholic Newspaper The Herald Lawrence Andrew: 'God is an integral part of every religion'

"Allah is not a Malay word. If they [non-Muslims] say they want to use a Malay word they should use Tuhan instead of Allah," Zainul Rijal Abu Bakar, a lawyer representing the government, told the BBC.

Dozens of churches and a few Muslim prayer halls were attacked and burned in the wake of the 2009 ruling, highlighting the intensity of feeling about issues of ethnicity and faith in Malaysia.

Some Malaysians believe the governing Malay-Muslim party is using the case to boost its Islamic credentials among voters, the BBC's Jennifer Pak reports from outside the court in Putrajaya.

Malay Muslims make up almost two-thirds of the country's population, but there are large Hindu and Christian communities.

Prime Minister Najib Razak's coalition won elections in May, but it was the coalition's worst result in more than half a century in power.

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