The Malaysian government has reiterated that non-Muslims cannot use the word "Allah," sparking concern yesterday among Christians who use it to refer to God in their Malay-language Bible and other publications.
Abdullah Zin, the de facto minister for Islamic affairs, told reporters on Thursday that the Cabinet is of the view that "Allah" refers to the Muslim God and can only be used by Muslims, who comprise about 60 percent of Malaysia's population.
"The use of the word `Allah' by non-Muslims may arouse sensitivity and create confusion among Muslims in the country," Abdullah said.
His statement is the latest twist in a long-drawn controversy involving the Herald, a weekly organ of Malaysia's Catholic Church.
It was told by the Internal Security Ministry last month that its Malay-language section would be banned unless it stops using "Allah" as a synonym for God.
But the paper was surprised when the ministry made an apparent about-turn last weekend by renewing its annual permit -- a government requirement for all publications in Malaysia -- without imposing any conditions.
The paper assumed it was a tacit approval for the use of "Allah."
But Abdullah's comments on Thursday threw the issue into fresh confusion and will likely renew complaints by ethnic minorities that their rights are increasingly undermined because of government efforts to bolster the status of Islam, Malaysia's official religion.
The Herald's editor, Reverend Lawrence Andrew, said its latest issue on Wednesday still uses "Allah," but he could not say whether upcoming editions would omit the word.
"We will have to discuss how to go about this with our lawyers and publishers," Andrew said.
Andrew reiterated the paper's stance that Malay-speaking Christians have long used the word, which has roots in Arabic and predates Islam.
"The newspaper does use Allah in quotes from the [Malay-language] Bible. Nobody can tell us that we cannot quote from the Bible. That would be a gross violation of our rights,'' he said.
Andrew declined to comment further, adding the paper had initiated court action over the issue.