KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 9 – The Christian Federation of Malaysia (CFM) maintains its constitutional right to describe its god as “Allah”, saying the word has been in Malay-language bibles for more than 400 years – as a Selangor royal decree threatens to restrict the right of non-Islamic religious worship.
The Selangor Sultan has yesterday issued a decree banning non-Muslims in the state from using the word “Allah”.
The umbrella body representing 90 per cent of churches nationwide said Christians here said the Arabic word is being used by “all Bahasa Malaysia-speaking church congregations especially the Orang Asli Christians, the Baba Christians and Sabahan and Sarawakian Christians including those who are residing in the various states of West Malaysia”.
“In accordance with Article 11 of the Federal Constitution of Malaysia, CFM affirms every person’s right to profess and practice his religion and in this connection, the churches’ freedom to use the Holy Bible in Bahasa Malaysia, the Alkitab, in all our church services, meetings and in our homes,” its chairman Bishop Datuk Ng Moon Hing said in a statement today.
The latest row arose after Selangor’s religious authority said it would enforce a blanket ban on non-Muslim use of the word, despite a High Court ruling in December 2009 that the word “Allah” was not restricted to Muslims and the Catholic Church had the right to publish the word in the Malay section of its weekly newspaper, Herald.
Sikhs, who also lay claim to use of the word in their holy texts, are similarly affected by the state law.
In recent years, the Christian and Muslim religious communities have been engaged in a tug-of-war over the word “Allah”, with the latter group arguing that its use should be exclusive to them on the grounds that Islam is monotheistic and the word “Allah” denotes the Muslim god.
Christians, however, counter that they have a legitimate and constitutional right to also call their god “Allah” based on historical records.
The “Dictionarium Malaico-Latin and Latino-Malaicum” was first published in 1631 by the Vatican Press in Rome.
Church officials say it is historical proof that its missionaries had played a key role in the exchange of knowledge and culture between Europe and Southeast Asia some 400 years ago.
Reverend Lawrence Andrew, who had worked for the past 11 years to reprint the dictionary, previously told The Malaysian Insider it was crucial to counter the mistaken belief that the spread of Christianity through local languages in Malaysia was a recent 20th-century phenomenon.
“It’s to say it’s been here for a long time... 400 years,” the editor of the country’s sole Catholic weekly newspaper, Herald, told The Malaysian Insider in an interview two years ago.
The Catholic Church had challenged the Home Ministry for the right to use the word “Allah” to describe God in the Christian context and had won in a landmark ruling at the High Court on New Year’s Eve in 2009.
But the paper is unable to use it as the ministry managed to get a stay pending its appeal which has been languishing at the Court of Appeal for the past three years.
Veteran lawyers have said there is little the church can do speed up the process as there are no rules on a time limit; adding it was not unusual for a case to be called years after being filed.
Andrew had submitted a copy of the dictionary as historical evidence to back the church’s suit after the ministry tendered several essays by Islamic scholars from the influential Institute of Islamic Understanding here supporting its case.
St Francis Xavier was instrumental in romanising the Malay language, which was used widely but had no written form in Southeast Asia then.
The Vatican’s former representative to Malaysia, Archbishop Luigi Bressan, had observed that the Holy See had as early as 1622 set up a special printing office to spread its Catholic Christian doctrine worldwide, and had marked the importance of Malay in that role.
Bressan, who was the Apostolic Delegate to Malaysia from July 26, 1993 to March 25, 1999, was crucial in reproducing the historical document.
The Italian archbishop remarked that Jesuit missionaries had “distinguished themselves” in translating the new Asian languages into Latin and European languages, in his notes to his essay “A 17th-Century Roman Dictionary of the Malay Language” that was also published as a sort of foreword in the 2010 reprint.