Malaysia’s top court yesterday upheld a government ban forbidding non-Muslims from using “Allah” to refer to God, rejecting an appeal by the Roman Catholic Church that argued that the ban failed to consider the rights of minorities in the mostly Muslim nation.
In a 4-3 decision, the Federal Court ruled that the church’s newspaper has no grounds to appeal a lower court decision last year that kept it from using “Allah” in its Malay-language weekly publication.
Although the Malaysian constitution guarantees freedom of religion, the ruling is expected to reinforce frequent complaints from Christians, Buddhist and Hindu minorities that non-Muslims do not always get fair treatment from the government and courts — accusations the government denies.
“We are disappointed. The four judges who denied us the right to appeal did not touch on fundamental basic rights of minorities,” said the Reverend Lawrence Andrew, editor of the Herald, the newspaper at the center of the controversy.
“It will confine the freedom of worship,” he added. “We are a minority in this country, and when our rights are curtailed, people feel it.”
Allah is the Arabic word for God and commonly used in the Malay language to refer to God.
The government says Allah should be reserved exclusively for Muslims — who make up nearly two-thirds of the country’s 29 million people — because if other religions use it that could confuse Muslims and lead them to convert.
Christian representatives deny this, arguing that the ban is unreasonable because Christians who speak the Malay language have long used the word in their Bibles, prayers and songs before authorities sought to enforce the curb in recent years.
The eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak on Borneo Island have a significant number of Christians, who make up about 9 percent of the population.
Over the years, the controversy has provoked some violence.
Anger over a lower court ruling against the government ban in 2009 led to a string of arson attacks and vandalism at churches and other places of worship. A judgement last year by the Court of Appeals reversed that decision, which the Catholic church appealed to the Federal Court.