KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 9 ― Christian church leaders have expressed concern over the effect of the Selangor Sultan’s royal decree banning followers of faiths other than Islam from using the word “Allah” to describe their gods.
The state Ruler had also instructed the Selangor Islamic Religious Council (MAIS) and the Selangor Islamic Affairs Department (JAIS) yesterday to take firm action against all groups, including non-Muslims, who continued to question the state fatwa (edict) and a 1988 state law restricting use of the Arabic word.
“Can a fatwa be applied to a non-Muslim?” asked Father Lawrence Andrew, the editor of the country’s sole Catholic newspaper, Herald, when contacted by The Malaysian Insider yesterday.
In December 2009, the High Court ruled that the word “Allah” was not restricted to Muslims and the Catholic Church had the right to published the word in the Malay section of its weekly newspaper, Herald.
The priest declined further comment, saying he would leave the question to be answered by legal experts, after pointing to a key issue raised in the Herald’s court challenge three years ago.
In her 2009 ruling, High Court judge Datuk Lau Bee Lan found that “a non-Muslim could be committing an offence if he uses the word ‘Allah’ to a Muslim but there would be no offence if it was used to a non-Muslim”.
Rev Hermen Shastri from the Methodist Church told The Malaysian Insider that the High Court’s judgment is still legally in effect pending the Home Ministry’s appeal to ban non-Muslims using the word, which it had argued in court was a security threat.
“Until overturned, Christians have the right to use it,” Shastri, who is secretary-general of the Council of Churches in Malaysia (CCM), an umbrella body representing all the Protestant churches nationwide.
CCM president Bishop Datuk Thomas Tsen told The Malaysian Insider he was worried about the consequences of the decree on Sabah and Sarawak Christians living in the state.
“Of course I am concerned about the effect on our people who live here, especially when Najib talks about 1 Malaysia and we want to speak in one language,” the Lutheran bishop said, referring to Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s remarks.
Like Andrew, he declined comment on the Selangor sultan’s statement, but highlighted a 10-point agreement issued by the Najib administration in April 2011, allowing Christians in Borneo Malaysia the freedom to use it in their worship, ahead of the Sarawak state election.
“When we pray in our language, we, the Malay-speaking people, use the words ‘Allah Bapa Syurga’ to describe ‘Our Father in Heaven’,” Tsen, who heads the Basel Christian Church of Malaysia in Sabah said.
He added that it would be very hard to explain to Sabahan and Sarawakian Christians that they were free to use the word back home but forbidden to do so in Selangor.
“It will definitely cause some ambiguity and some strange feelings,” Tsen said.
Christians in Sabah and Sarawak form the bulk of Malaysia’s 9.2 per cent Christian population.
Shipments of the Alkitab, the Malay-language Bible catering to the Bahasa Malaysia-speaking Bumiputera Christians, were blocked or confiscated, before the government finally bowed to pressure and released them in 2011.
The Cabinet’s 10-point resolution issued by the Najib administration had assured the huge Bumiputera Christian population in Sarawak and Sabah they are free to import and use their bibles in Malay and in any language, including their respective indigenous languages like Iban, Kadazan-Dusun and Lun Bawang.
The federal government also said no restriction will be applied.
The Sultan of Selangor Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah had called for an emergency meeting with state Islamic religious officials to bar non-Muslims from using the Arabic word for god, MAIS said yesterday.
“His majesty the Selangor Sultan has made a decision and decreed that the word ‘Allah’ is a sacred word specific to Muslims and is strictly forbidden for use by any non-Muslim religion in Selangor as stated in a fatwa and gazetted on 18 February 2010,” MAIS secretary Datuk Mohd Misri Idris said in a statement.
Mohd Misri added that Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah had issued a similar decree three years ago when the “Allah” issue first erupted and regretted that his statement was taken lightly.
He pointed out that the Non-Islamic Religions (Control of Propagation Amongst Muslims) Enactment restricting the use of the word was passed in the state assembly 25 years ago and enforced in July 1988.
He said the state law was also in keeping with Article 11(4) of the Federal Constitution governing the spread of non-Muslim doctrine.
“Section 9 of the Enactment strictly forbids the word ‘Allah’ to be used by non-Muslims in any matter related to their religions.
“Those who breach this provision can be charged and sentences meted out against them,” he said.
The Selangor Sultan also chided those who would use Islam for political purposes and warned them against destroying the existing peace enjoyed by Malaysia’s multireligious community, Mohd Misri secretary said.
PAS president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang told a joint press conference with Pakatan Rakyat leaders here yesterday that Christians and other non-Muslim communities should not abuse the word to spread confusion among Muslims but this did not mean they were not allowed to use the word.
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.
The Sikh community have also claimed the word “Allah” to be an integral part of its holy texts to describe god.