February 1, 2010 Volume 23, Number 22
Use of word "Allah" sparks attacks on churches in Malaysia
By Geoffrey P. Johnston | Special to ChristianWeek
A molotov cocktail hurled at the Church of the Assumption at Petaling Jaya did little damage. PHOTO: CHURCH OF THE ASSUMPTION
On the last day of 2009, Malaysia's High Court struck down a law that bans Christian publications and literature from using the Arabic term "Allah" to describe God. Even though the ruling has been temporarily suspended pending a government appeal, extremists have reacted to the High Court's decision by launching a terror campaign against the country's churches.
Malaysia is a multi-religious society, yet the country's constitution declares Islam the official religion of the Southeast Asian country. Approximately 60 per cent of Malaysia's 28 million people are Muslim. Buddhists account for 19 per cent of the population, while nine per cent identify themselves as Christian. Hinduism and traditional Chinese religions are also practised in Malaysia.
According to the International Religious Freedom Report, an audit conducted by the U. S. Department of State, the policies of the Malaysian government "promoted Islam above other religions" in 2009.
In Malaysia certain words are tightly controlled by the government. The U. S. Department of State reports that "the usage of words 'Allah' (God), 'Bartullah' (House of God), and 'Slot' (prayer) are restricted for use by Muslim groups," because "the government claimed these words are the sole jurisdiction of the Muslim community."
"Attempting to restrict the language for God used by Christians in Malaysia or censoring publications and other religious texts used by religious groups is a troubling restriction of religious freedom, experienced both by Malaysian Christians and many Muslim groups," says Scott Flipse, director of the East Asia and Pacific program at the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.
For over two years the government has been locked in a legal battle with Malaysia's weekly Catholic newspaper, The Herald, over the issue of religious censorship.
"The government claimed reference to Allah by Christians and in Christian literature could confuse the country's Muslims and draw them to Christianity," notes the International Religious Freedom Report. And despite government pressure, The Herald "continued to use 'Allah' to denote God, as the Catholic Church has done in the country for more than 400 years."
In February 2008, the Catholic Church launched a lawsuit against the government, challenging the "Allah" ban. On December 31, 2009, the High Court ruled in favour of the church, striking down the law. One week later, however, the controversial ruling was temporarily set aside.
Outraged by the High Court's ruling, Muslim groups organized public demonstrations. Hours before the protests were to take place on January 8, several churches in the Kuala Lumpur area were firebombed. The first to be attacked was the Metro-Tabernacle Church, which is affiliated with the Assemblies of God. Just after midnight, firebombs gutted the ground floor of the church, which is located in the suburbs of Malaysia's capital.
Another attack targeted the Catholic Church of the Assumption, located at nearby Petaling Jaya. Fortunately, the Molotov cocktail hurled into the church compound did not cause any real damage, parish priest Phillips Muthu told ChristianWeek. But the attack has had a negative impact on his congregation.
"The events affected the feelings and emotions of the parishioners and Malaysians, in general," Muthu says. "But the parishioners resorted to prayer, trusting God and spreading goodwill amongst one another."
Since the attack, the police have reportedly stepped up security around the country's churches. "But the security can be breached by some quarters, and that is why fresh attacks on churches appear here and there," says Muthu. "This has contributed to fear and anxiety among the Christians."
Despite the violence, Muthu says he doesn't feel any animosity toward Muslims. "I was brought up by a Muslim family in my early years," he explains. Describing Muslims as "generally friendly" and "understanding," the parish priest believes that most are "non-contributors to unrest in Malaysia."
"We have been living in peace with one another," he says of the Christian and Muslim communities. "But this [controversy] has somewhat marred our perception of the government."