Malaysia

Christians mark 400 years of Malay Bible as ‘Allah’ case drags on

By Debra Chong
March 02, 2012

KUALA LUMPUR, March 2 — The opportunity to use the word “Allah” in a non-Muslim context remains a struggle for Christian Malaysians as they mark 400 years since the Bible was first published in the Malay language.

Christian scholars are huddling at a seminary in Seremban today, on the 400th anniversary of the Alkitab, in a conference that could shore up the Catholic Church’s case after it won, in 2009, the right to use the Arabic word to refer to God in its newspaper, The Herald.

The Malay version of the Bible embossed with the words ‘Christian Publication’ and a cross appeared from 2005 following a Home Ministry agreement with local distributors. — Picture by Choo Choy MayThe Malay version of the Bible embossed with the words ‘Christian Publication’ and a cross appeared from 2005 following a Home Ministry agreement with local distributors. — Picture by Choo Choy MayWhile Putrajaya has allowed churches nationwide to import the Malay-language Bible — first translated in 1612 — government lawyers refuse to withdraw their appeal against the Catholic Church’s suit.

Organised by the Seminari Theoloji Malaysia (STM) and the Bible Society of Malaysia (BSM), the two-day conference kicked off this morning at 10 with an examination of the historical and theological perspectives on the translation of the Alkitab as well as the legal aspects concerning its print and distribution here.

The day-long closed-door conference will see speakers representing, among others, the BSM, local Christian think-tank Kairos Research Centre and the United Bible Societies, the world’s biggest Bible translator, publisher and distributor organisation with 146 members across 200 countries and territories.

Among the highlights of the conference is an exhibition of the Alkitab, first published in 1612 with the Malay translation of the Gospel of Matthew.

A similar public discussion will take place at the Trinity Methodist Church in Petaling Jaya tomorrow, STM spokesman Reverend Lim Kar Yong told The Malaysian Insider when contacted.

However, he stressed that the event was strictly for Christians.

Despite the Catholic Church winning a High Court decision on December 31, 2009 to publish the word “Allah”, its weekly paper The Herald has been blocked from doing so the past three years pending the Home Ministry’s appeal.

The case has been languishing in the Court of Appeal since.

But the controversy spilled over into the rights of Malaysia’s Christian population at large as shipments of Malay-language bibles catering to the Bahasa Malaysia-speaking Bumiputera Christians were also blocked or confiscated last year.

It was turned into election fodder in the run-up to last year’s Sarawak polls as Christians there make up nearly half of the state’s total population.

And despite Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s historic meeting with Pope Benedict XVI in Rome last July to establish diplomatic relations between Muslim-majority Malaysia and the Vatican, there has been little progress in resolving the “Allah” dispute.

Christians form 9.2 per cent of Malaysia’s 28.3 million-strong population.

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, have argued that “Allah” is an Arabic word that has been used by those of other religious beliefs, including the Jews, in reference to God in many other parts of the world, notably in Arab nations and Indonesia.