Malaysia’s top court has upheld a government ban forbidding non-Muslims from using “Allah” to refer to God, rejecting an appeal by a Catholic newspaper and reportedly heightening religious tensions in the country.
The Roman Catholic Church’s The Herald newspaper was ordered in 2007 to stop using “Allah” in its Malay-language weekly publication.
Allah is the Arabic word for God but is commonly used in the Malay language to refer to God.
The government says Allah should be reserved exclusively for Muslims — who make up nearly two-thirds of the country’s 29 million people — because if other religions use it that could confuse Muslims and lead them to convert – a crime in Malaysia.
However, Christian leaders claim the name has been used in Malay-language versions of the Bible, prayers and songs for centuries.
Christians make up about 9 percent of the Malaysian population, and live mostly in the eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak on Borneo Island.
The high court upheld the government ban in a 4-3 verdict on Monday.
The ruling is expected to reinforce frequent complaints from Christians, Buddhist and Hindu minorities that non-Muslims do not always get fair treatment from the government and courts — accusations the government denies, Associated Press reported.
A government spokesman later said: “the ruling only applies to the Herald newspaper's use of the word 'Allah'. Malaysian Christians can still use the word 'Allah' in church."
The Herald editor Reverend Lawrence Andrew reportedly said the decision denied the freedom of religion.
“We are disappointed. The four judges who denied us the right to appeal did not touch on fundamental basic rights of minorities,” Rev Andrew said.
“It will confine the freedom of worship. We are a minority in this country, and when our rights are curtailed, people feel it.”
Religious tensions have simmered in the country for years, often leading to violence.
The “Allah” case has previously been linked to violence, including arson attacks and vandalism of churches after a lower court ruled against the government ban in 2009, AP said.
A 2013 judgment by the Court of Appeals reversed that decision, which the Catholic church appealed to the Federal Court.
AFP said lawyers for the Catholic Church said they would explore further ways to challenge the ban, expressing fears that Monday's ruling could be used as a precedent to curtail religious freedom in other cases.
Outside the court, about a hundred Muslim activists cheered the news of the verdict. Earlier, they had shouted "Allahu Akbar" (God is great) and waved banners that read, "Uniting to defend the name of Allah", AFP said.
"We must defend 'Allah' because this is our religious obligation. I hope other communities, including Christians, understand this," Ibrahim Ali, head of Muslim rights group Perkasa, told AFP.