Malaysia: LWF Supports Malay-Speaking Christians in ‘Allah’ Controversy

LCM Bishop Aaron Yap shows a 16th century Bible. Photo: LWF/C. Kästner
LCM Bishop Aaron Yap shows a 16th century Bible. Photo: LWF/C. Kästner

Appeal to Court Against ‘Allah’ Ban Rejected

(LWI) – Following a court ruling on the use of the word ‘Allah’ in Malay Bibles, The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) has reaffirmed solidarity with and support to Malay (Bahasa Malaysia) speaking Christians to practice their religion and worship according to their tradition.

“We are reaffirming LWF’s solidarity with the Christian churches of Malaysia and support for their freedom to practice their religion and to worship God,” LWF General Secretary Rev. Martin Junge said. “We urge the Malaysian authorities to recognize that there is no threat or disrespect to Islam when persons of other faiths use the word Allah.

“We know that this is true from the ages-long use of the word Allah by Christians in the Arabic-speaking world, as well as by the long experience in next-door Indonesia, where Allah is used by Christians in the Bahasa Indonesia language without any controversy,” the general secretary added.

“A Very Hard Decision”

On 23 June 2014, Malaysia’s High Court rejected an appeal by the Roman Catholic Church in Malaysia, which challenged a government ban on the word ‘Allah’. According to a High Court ruling in October 2013, the Arab term for “God” may only be used by Muslims. Malay speaking Christians challenged that ban, claiming that the word had been used in Malay Bible translations since the 16th century, as it is the word for “God” in the local language.

The legal dispute is focused on the Catholic weekly Herald. Published in the four languages commonly spoken by Christians in Malaysia—English, Tamil, Chinese and Malay—it had been using the term in the Malay-language section until the Minister of Home Affairs ordered the Herald to stop using the word in January 2009, limiting its use to Islam.

The main argument in the legal battle which followed was that the use of that word in Christian literature would confuse Muslims and accidently convert them. Converting from Islam or proselytizing Muslims in Malaysia is a serious offense.

The Roman Catholic Church in Malaysia challenged that court order and won at the High Court in December 2009. The Minister then appealed, and in a decision in October 2013, the Court of Appeal overturned the High Court ruling banning the use of ‘Allah’ for anyone but Muslims. The High Court panel determined that the use of the word ‘Allah’ in the Christian reference to God is “not an integral part of the faith and practice of Christianity.” An appeal by the Catholic Church challenging that ruling has now been rejected.

“It is hard to accept this decision. This term was used by Bahasa-Speaking Christians for hundreds of years. Can you stop a Christian from using the word ‘God’?” Aaron C. Yap, Bishop of the Lutheran Church in Malaysia (LCM), says. He fears that while the court decision only restricts the use of ‘Allah’ in the Catholic weekly Herald, as the government assured immediately after the Court’s decision, the court decision might be misused by a certain group of people as precedence, and may have far-reaching consequences to Christian faith and practice in Malaysia. “This is our religion, our belief,” Yap further states. “We are good citizens and respect the law. At the same time, we also uphold the freedom of religion and belief; this is part of our constitution, which we expect all people to respect too.”

Power-Struggles Clothed in Religion

In a statement issued on 23 June 2014, the Christian Federation of Malaysia (CFM) voiced “extreme disappointment” with the decision, calling it “critically flawed in so many respects” as “many incorrect and inaccurate statements and observations (…) led to its decision.” The CFM statement also raised concern about the “serious repercussions for the freedom of religion for the Christian community in Malaysia,” maintaining that the “Christian community continues to have the right to use the word ‘Allah’ in our Bibles, church services and Christian gatherings (…) as we have done all this while.”

While the ban of ‘Allah’ for anyone but Muslims appears to be a religious issue, many church leaders claim that the controversy is being used as a vote-winner for the ruling party. Rev. Dr Hermen Shastri, General Secretary of the Council of Churches in Malaysia (CCM), is convinced that the case against the Christian newspaper is used for ethnic affirmation, to “divert attention from internal party battles” and win votes from the more conservative Muslim opposition party.

Muslim by Default

The country’s constitution from 1957 names Islam as the official religion. Article 3 however guarantees “complete freedom of religion” to other groups with “no hindrance on the practice of other religions.” The population of Malaysia is mainly Muslim (60 percent), with Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and Chinese religions making up the remaining 40 percent. Ethnic Malays however are by default considered Muslims.

The four LWF member churches in Malaysia mostly have immigrant roots: Tamils, Indians and Chinese, but also the aborigine Malaysians called Orang Asli. They use Bibles in English, Chinese, Tamil and Malay. As Indonesia and Malaysia use almost the same language, many Bibles are imported from neighboring Indonesia, where the use of ‘Allah’ is common and undisputed.

Having witnessed an “Islamization process” in Malaysian schools, universities and public venues over the past years, the CCM general secretary fears that the religious issue has also become an ethnic issue. He fears the court ruling will affect relations between all religious groups in the country. “We have arrived at a stage where it becomes crazy,” Shastri says. “This decision will be very difficult to uphold and implement. It is for us to decide how we translate Scripture. We will not give in. We will continue to use it.”

“Constitution Protects Us”

Meanwhile, Father Andrew Lawrence, editor of the Catholic weekly Herald, is facing the difficult task to print the Malay section of the church weekly without the forbidden term. “I cannot use it right now. They could use it as an excuse to close the paper and arrest me,” he says. Over the course of the four years’ legal battle, the Jesuit priest has received death threats by radical groups, been questioned by the secret police and faced bureaucratic obstacles for communicating his faith, such as having to apply each year for a permit to publish the paper.

Father Lawrence now prepares a review of the rejection. “They are saying ‘God’ is not an integral part of Christianity. This is utter nonsense,” he argues, and emphasizes that the case is not only targeting the Herald but Christian life and religious freedom in the entire country. “This is taking place at all levels,” he says.

He still places faith in the legal system of his country despite the adverse judgments. “The church in Malaysia from its infancy stage has been a Malay church,” he says. There are Bibles, prayer books and other written materials of earlier centuries to support this fact. “We are law abiding citizens, we will continue to uphold and defend the Federal Constitution. The Constitution is meant to protect us, but it is being rewritten stealthily,” Lawrence adds.