After a legal battle that lasted more than a decade, the Malaysian High Court yesterday granted a Malaysian Christian the right to use the word “Allah” in her religious practice.
The ruling quashed a three-decade government ban prohibiting the country’s Christians from using the word “Allah” in their religious publications.
The court also allowed three words to be used in Christian publications for educational purposes: Kaabah (Islam’s holiest shrine in Mecca), Baitullah (House of God), and solat (prayer).
Malaysian Christians argue that they have used the word “Allah”, to denote God, for centuries in their own religious practice. Christians make up a substantial population of Sabah and Sarawak, where congregations use the Malay language in their church activities and publications.
However, some Muslim leaders have argued that allowing Christians to use the word “Allah” could lead to public unrest and confusion. The word “Allah”, they say, is largely perceived by Malaysia’s majority Malay-Muslim community to refer exclusively to the Islamic God.
Yesterday, High Court Justice Nor Bee Ariffin affirmed the constitutional right of Ms Jill Ireland Lawrence Bill, a Sarawakian Christian, to use the word “Allah” for her religious practice.
Ms Bill filed a legal challenge on the matter shortly after eight educational compact discs that used the word “Allah” were seized from her in 2008, upon her return to Sarawak from Indonesia.
Malaysia’s courts declared in 2014 that the seizure was unlawful, and the CDs, which were for Ms Bill’s personal use, were returned to her in 2015.
However, the previous court cases did not make a ruling on the constitutional points raised by Ms Bill – namely her right to use the word “Allah” for religious purposes.
Datuk Nor Bee had heard the constitutional points raised in the case in November 2017. But the judge’s decision on the matter was delayed dozens of times as the parties attempted an out-of-court settlement.
“She (Ms Bill) has been deprived and there is no assurance that it won’t happen again,” Justice Nor Bee ruled yesterday.
Ram Anand Malaysia Correspondent In Kuala Lumpur
In 1986, Malaysia’s Home Ministry banned the use of the word “Allah” – largely perceived in the country’s Muslim community to denote the Islamic God – in Christian publications, citing threats to public order.
The ban led to three court challenges.
1 THE HERALD V HOME MINISTRY
Catholic weekly The Herald went to the courts after being banned from using the word “Allah”. It won in the High Court in 2009.
But the Court of Appeal overturned the decision in 2013.
The apex Federal Court then upheld the ban.
2 JILL IRELAND V HOME MINISTRY
In 2008, Ms Jill Ireland Lawrence Bill, a Sarawakian Christian, had educational CDs that used the word “Allah” seized from her. She got a court to declare the seizure unlawful.
But constitutional points were never answered and the High Court yesterday affirmed her constitutional right.
3 BORNEO EVANGELICAL CHURCH V HOME MINISTRY
In 2007, the Home Ministry seized Christian religious books containing the word “Allah”. The church filed a judicial review application on its right to use “Allah” in its religious publications.
But 13 years on, after numerous delays, the merits of the case are yet to be heard.
The court’s decision also effectively quashed a circular issued by Malaysia’s Home Ministry in 1986, which banned the use of the word “Allah” in Christian publications. Justice Nor Bee yesterday said that the ministry had exceeded its powers with the order, and added that such a prohibition was against the Constitution.
The judge said: “There is no such power to restrict religious freedom under Article 11. Religious freedom is absolutely protected even in times of threat to public order.”
Ms Bill’s legal challenge over a decade ago coincided with a similar court case in which a Catholic weekly, The Herald, was banned by the Home Ministry from using the word “Allah”. The courts in 2013 ruled in favour of the government ban.
At the height of both trials, right-wing groups in Malaysia protested against the rights of non-Muslims to use the word “Allah”. Amid controversy over the issue in 2010, 11 churches and five mosques were firebombed or vandalised.
Christianity is the third main religion in Malaysia, and is practised by 13 per cent of the country’s population – a majority of them residing in the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak.
Malaysia’s Muslims comprise some 60 per cent of the country’s 32 million-strong population.
There is currently another legal challenge to the “Allah” ban, brought by Sidang Injil Borneo, or the Borneo Evangelical Church.
It remains to be seen if the church’s legal challenge will continue after yesterday’s decision.
The government has not indicated whether it will appeal against the ruling.
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