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Malaysia: Court Rules Catholic Magazine Can Use the Word “Allah”

(Jan. 5, 2010) On December 31, 2009, the High Court of Malaysia ruled that a Christian publication has a constitutional right to use the word “Allah” to refer to God. (Catholic Magazine Herald Can Use Word “Allah,” BERNAMA (Malaysia), Dec. 31, 2009, available at

The case was filed in February 2009 by the Herald, the Malaysian Roman Catholic Church's main publication, which sought judicial review of a government decision prohibiting it from translating “God” as “Allah.” The government also recently confiscated 10,000 copies of Malay-language bibles that contained the word Allah. (Eileen Ng, Malaysian Court Rules Christians Can Use 'Allah,' ASSOCIATED PRESS, Jan. 1, 2010, available at

The Herald had used the word in its Malay-language edition, which is mainly circulated among indigenous people in the states of Sabah and Sarawak on Borneo Island whose ancestors converted to Christianity more than a century ago. The word has traditionally been used by the Malay-speaking Christian community in worship and religious instruction. (Id.)

The government argued that Allah is an Islamic word that should be used exclusively by Muslims and that the ban was necessary to protect national security and avoid misunderstanding and confusion among Muslims, who make up approximately 60% of Malaysia's population of 28 million. Christians (including about 800,000 Catholics) make up about 9.1% of the population. (Royce Cheah, Malaysian Court Rules Catholic Paper Can Use “Allah,” ABC NEWS, Dec. 31, 2009, available at Some commentators think that the government fears that Muslims might be tempted to convert to Christianity by reading Christian literature. (Ng, supra.)

The judge found that, while the Federal Constitution means that it can be an offense for non-Muslims to use the word Allah to propagate their religion to Muslims, it is not an offense to use it in communicating with non-Muslims about religion. (BERNAMA, supra.) In the context of the Herald, the judge said that its readership is largely limited to followers of Christianity and “that is a sufficient safeguard.” (Ng, supra.) She also held that provisions in the Federal Constitution relating to freedom of speech, expression, and religion protect the right of Christians to use the word in educating the congregation in the Christian religion and therefore that the government's ban was illegal. (BERNAMA, supra.)

The court's ruling is seen as a landmark decision by religious minorities, some of whom feel that they are subject to discrimination by the government. (Ng, supra.)

The government filed an appeal against the decision on January 4, 2010, and is seeking a stay of execution of the court order. (Home Ministry Files Appeal Against Allah Decision, BERNAMA, Jan. 4, 2010, available at The Prime Minister appealed for calm, saying, “[t]he government is very much aware and concerned of various reactions that it has received after the recent High Court decision.” (PM Asks Muslims to Be Patient, Government Will Appeal, BERNAMA, Jan. 3, 2010, available at