HONG KONG: This Christmas season is decidedly less than cheery for Christians in Malaysia. A cloud of Malay Muslim religious intolerance hovers over the minority community, which accounts for about 10% of the country’s population of 26 million. Even before the furore over recent demolition of ethnic Indians’ temples has died down, a new controversy has erupted, this time over a Minister’s statement that religious communities other than Muslims should not invoke the name of ‘Allah’ to refer to god.
Herald, the weekly newsletter of the Catholic Church, has been warned that it is at risk of losing its publication permit for using the word ‘Allah’ while referring to ‘God’ in its Bahasa Malaysia (Malay language) section. Such a move would effectively close down the 13-year-old publication, which is published in four languages (English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil) and has a circulation of 12,000. Under Malaysia’s restrictive press laws, publishers require a permit, renewed yearly, to go to press; Herald’s permit expires on December 31.
Last week, Malaysia’s Deputy Internal Security Minister Johari Baharum weighed in on the controversy with the view that “only Muslims can use the word ‘Allah’… We cannot let other religions use it because it will confuse people.” Acknowledging that the word was derived from the Arabic language, Johari pointedly said that it was “not right” that “the word ‘Allah’ was published by Catholics… We cannot allow this… in non-Muslim publications.”
Herald’s editor, Rev. Lawrence Andrew, however, defends the use of the word ‘Allah’, and says it was not intended to offend or confuse Muslims. The Malay-language Bible uses the word ‘Allah’ for God and ‘Tuhan’ for Lord, he notes. “In our prayers and in church during Malay mass, we use the word ‘Allah’,” he adds.
The government’s threat to cancel Herald’s publication permit is being criticised by Opposition leaders as a sign of “burgeoning religious intolerance and constitutional encroachments.” Democratic Action Party leader Lim Kit Siang noted that the word ‘Allah’ had been used by Christians “for generations in many countries”. The government’s action, he said, “would be another signal that Malaysia is going down the slippery slope of more religious restrictions for non-Muslim faiths, whose constitutionally-entrenched guarantees of freedom of religion are not being honoured by the government.”