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Malaysia: Court Decision on Use of Word “Allah” by Non-Muslims

(Oct. 25, 2013) It was reported on October 22, 2013, that the Court of Appeals in Putrajaya, Malaysia, has upheld a government ban on the use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslim groups to refer to God. The Court had considered the issue in response to the use of Allah in The Herald, a Catholic newspaper. The government will, however, uphold a 2011 agreement under which Christians in Malaysia’s Sabah and Sarawak states, located on the island of Borneo, can use the term in worship services. (Malaysian Christians in Borneo Can Continue Using “Allah,” THE JAKARTA POST (Oct. 22, 2013).)

Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak stated that the people of the Malaysian Borneo states should not feel threatened by the decision, because their religious traditions can continue without restriction. He added that “[t]here is always a solution to any problem in ensuring peace and harmony through good relations between all races and religious beliefs. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to find a formula for harmony. The solution is rational thinking.” (Id.) He warned that no one should politicize the issue of the use of the word Allah, because it would be “playing with fire,” and insisted that Muslims and non-Muslims should respect each other’s feelings. (Id.)

The 2011 agreement is a ten-point program announced as a Cabinet decision following meetings with Christian groups, who wanted to have Bibles printed in the Malay language. The ten points in this program are:

1. Bibles in any language can be imported into Malaysia.

2. Bibles can also be printed in Malay in peninsular Malaysia, Sabah, and Sarawak.

3. Bibles can also be printed locally or imported in the indigenous languages of Sabah and Sarawak, including Iban, Kadaza-Dusun, and Lun Bawang.

4. Because Sabah and Sarawak have large Christian communities, the imported and locally printed bibles do not need to have a stamp or serial number.

5. Elsewhere in Malaysia, imported and locally printed Bibles in Malay must have the words “Christian Publication,” together with a cross, printed on their front covers.

6. There should be no prohibitions or restrictions on people bringing Bibles and other Christian materials with them when they travel within Malaysia.

7. The Home Ministry issued a directive to ensure that these provisions are properly implemented. Officials that do not follow the directive will be subject to disciplinary action.

8. The 30,000 Bibles previously impounded in Kuching (in Sarawak), can be collected by the importer, without charge, and the parties will be reimbursed for expenses. The same offer is extended to the Bible Society Malaysia, which had already collected the 5,100 Bibles previously held in Port Klang (on the coast, south of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital).

9. The government restates its commitment to working with all the different religious groups in the country.

10. The Christian Ministers in the Cabinet will meet regularly with representatives of various Christian organizations and work to resolve any issues that arise. (Govt Allows Import and Local Printing of Bible in All Languages, THE STAR ONLINE (Apr. 2, 2011).)

Malaysia is just over 60% Muslim, about 20% Buddhist, and about 10% Christian, and it also has residents that are Hindu, Confucian, Taoist, or followers of other religions. (Malaysia, CIA WORLD FACTBOOK (last updated Sept. 10, 2013).) Sabah and Sarawak have a higher percentage of Christian inhabitants than other parts of Malaysia. (Joe Fernandez, Race, Religion Not Issues for Sabah, Sarawak, (May 9, 2011), FMT NEWS; for background on previous developments on the issue, see Kelly Buchanan, Malaysia: Court Rules Catholic Magazine Can Use the Word “Allah,”>GLOBAL LEGAL MONITOR (Jan. 5, 2010).)