Government officials in Malaysia agreed to release 35,000 Bibles that were seized in the country as it continues a heated dispute over non-Muslims being allowed to use the word “Allah” for God.
The decision on March 15 by the Muslim-majority government is being considered a significant move to quell frustration among Malaysian Christians, as a court case continues on whether non-Muslims have the constitutional right to use the word.
The Herald, Malaysia's sole Catholic publication, was prosecuted last year by the Malaysian Home Ministry and threatened with the loss of its printing license for its use of “Allah” in describing the Christian God in its Malay-language section.
The Herald argued that use of the term follows a centuries-old tradition within the Arabic language that pre-dates Islam, while the Home Ministry claimed that its usage outside the Muslim context was an affront to Muslims. Islam is both the state religion and the largest faith in the country.
According to Vatican Radio, on March 16 another government minister attempted to reimpose a block on 5,000 of the Bibles in the Malaysian city of Port Klang.
“In Selangor – where Port Klang is – there is a state enactment that prohibits the use of the word ‘Allah’ by non-Muslims,” editor of The Herald Fr. Lawrence Andrew told Vatican Radio.
The enactment, however, “goes against the federal constitution,” he underscored.
Fr. Andrew also said there is an internal security act that allows for use of the Bible by Christians as long as they have been stamped with the words “For Christians Only.”
“So legally we Christians can have the Bible, but they are now putting restrictions because of the fear that this will confuse Muslims,” he said.
Last June the Malaysian High Court suspended a ruling that would have allowed The Herald to use the word “Allah” in a non-Muslim context. The decision came after an appeal was made by prosecutors trying to overturn the ruling.
Although the court had initially approval of the paper's usage of the word in January, hundreds of Muslim youth protested, and The Herald's website was hacked several times.
Extremist groups in Malaysia also attacked and profaned places of worship of several religions to provoke a reaction, the Rome-based Fides news agency reported. Vandals targeted 11 churches, a Sikh temple, a mosque and two Muslim prayer rooms in January 2010.