Malaysian Christians are allowed to use the word “Allah” to refer to God in educational publications, a High Court ruled on Wednesday in ending a decades-long ban, which the court said was unconstitutional because it restricted religious freedom.
The Kuala Lumpur High Court further ruled that a 1986 directive by the home ministry to bar the use of Allah and three other Arabic words in Christian publications was illegal and irrational, because Malay Christians had used these words for more than 400 years, the state-run Bernama news agency reported about the verdict.
“The use of the words would not disrupt public order,” Judge Nor Bee Ariffin said in her ruling allowing Christian publications to use not just “Allah, but also the words “baitullah,” “kaabah” and “solat.”
BenarNews could not immediately obtain a copy of the High Court judgment or reach lawyers on either side of the case.
The High Court’s decision seemed to contradict a 2014 Federal Court ruling – in a separate case – that according to the Associated Press, upheld the government ban on the use of “Allah” by Christian publications, which was a highly emotive issue for the country’s Christian minority and Muslim majority.
Meanwhile, the government counsel on the case told Bernama that Christian publications using the words need to note that the material is intended only for Christians.
“However, publications that contain the four words must carry a disclaimer that it is intended for Christians only as well as a cross symbol,” Senior Federal Counsel Shamsul Bolhassan told Bernama.
Govt urged to appeal ruling
Over the decades, many conservative Malaysian Muslims had said that non-Muslim Malays using words like Allah could use it to “confuse” and purportedly convert Muslims to another religion.
The months leading up to the 2014 federal court ruling, and previous court decisions on the issue, saw huge demonstrations by Muslims who carried banners with quotes such as “Allah is just for Muslims.”
Already, by Wednesday evening, the Muafakat Nasional coalition of parties expressed serious concern about the High Court’s judgment. Muafakat consists of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) – Malaysia’s oldest party and a partner in the ruling coalition – and the conservative Pan-Islamic Malaysian Party (PAS).
“Muafakat Nasional wishes to state its serious concern on the High Court decision to allow the use of Islamic terminology by non-Muslims in their respective publications. The meeting urged the government to appeal the ruling to the Court of Appeal,” the coalition said in a statement on the UMNO website.
Some others approved of the High Court ruling.
One person on Twitter who identified as Malaysian said banning “Allah” from being used by non-Muslims was discriminatory.
“As a Malaysian it baffled me and I was ashamed how Malay Muslim denigrated to such lows of discriminatory practices. My generation saw this absurd revisionism went out of control,” the person tweeted.
The 2010 Malaysian Census showed 61.3 percent of Malaysians practice Islam, almost 20 percent Buddhism and 6.3 percent Christianity, according to the 2019 Report on International Religious Freedom published by the United States State Department.
James Masing, deputy chief minister of Malaysia’s Sarawak state, where Christians are in a majority, said Wednesday’s High Court ruling showed that freedom of religion exists in the country.
“The High Court quashing the ban on the word ‘Allah’ to be used by Christians, shows that freedom of religion is very much alive and well in Malaysia. It has the force of law in this country,” Masing told The Borneo Post.
A leading interfaith group in Malaysia said the High Court was right in allowing Christians to use “Allah” because everyone has the right to freedom of religion.
Malaysians should respect the ruling, R.S. Mohan Shan, president of the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism, told The Malaysian Insight publication.
Wednesday’s ruling was on a judicial review application filed by Jill Ireland Lawrence Bill, a Sarawak Christian, 13 years ago.
The authorities had seized eight religious CDs, with Malay titles that included the word “Allah,” from Ireland in May 2008 when she returned from an overseas trip.
Ireland filed the judicial review application to challenge the seizure and for a declaration on her constitutional right to use the word “Allah” in Christian publications.
In 2014, the High Court held that the seizure was wrong but did not decide on the constitutional issues Ireland raised.
A year later, the Court of Appeal ordered the home ministry to return the CDs to Ireland, but told the High Court to hear the case on the constitutional aspects of the case.
The High Court was set to rule on the case on 2018 but postponed a verdict.
On Wednesday, the High Court ruled that Ireland was guaranteed protection from religious discrimination.
“It is not disputed that Bahasa Malaysia has been the language of the people in Sabah and Sarawak,” Judge Nor Bee ruled.
“As can be discerned from affidavits by the applicant and several other affidavits, all of which have not been rebutted, it cannot be denied that the Christian community in Sabah and Sarawak used ‘Allah’ in Bahasa Malaysia in practicing their religion for centuries.”