KUALA LUMPUR — Malaysia’s Catholic Church yesterday lost its final bid to be allowed to use the word “Allah” in its weekly newspaper printed in Bahasa Malaysia, drawing to a close a five-year battle.
With no more legal avenues to pursue for the right to use the word “Allah” in the weekly Herald, its editor, Reverend Father Lawrence Andrew, expressed disappointment that the Federal Court’s dismissal of the appeal would further undermine the rights of minorities.
Rev Andrew said it was an important constitutional case on the right to profess one’s faith and said he hoped that the rights of minorities, including the poor and the underprivileged, would not be trampled upon.
However, the Malay rights group Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia (Isma) said the Catholic Church should lay down arms and accept defeat as it lauded the Federal Court’s decision.
Isma president Abdullah Zaik Abd Rahman lauded the Federal Court’s decision, saying it was in accordance with the Federal Constitution and was made to preserve national harmony in Muslim-majority Malaysia.
“The ‘Allah’ polemic should end now with the court’s ruling. I hope the church abides by the decision for the sake of the country’s harmony,” he said. “Stubbornness will not benefit anyone,” Mr Abdullah said, adding that any failure by the church to accept the court’s decision would result in prolonging the standoff between Christians and Muslims in Malaysia over use of the Arabic word.
“We will continue to be in crisis if we do not accept the decision from the country’s judiciary,” the Isma leader added.
During the case, however, Rev Andrew was asked if allowing the use of the word would “open up old wounds and cause public unrest”.
He said he did not understand how trouble could arise as “Allah” had been used for a long time by Bahasa Malaysia-speaking Christians.
“Malay has been the language in the church in Malaya for centuries and I have shown evidence than BM was already a language of worship for hundreds of years in devotional booklets. And during this period, there was no trouble whatsoever, so I don’t see an possibility of evoking trouble,” the priest said.
Despite appearing to be at the end of the road, the church’s lead counsel, Dr Cyrus Das, said the issue was not necessarily over.
It could be raised through other cases, Dr Das said, adding that the matter of constitutional rights of minorities could still be taken up. The merits of the church’s case in the dispute over the use of the word “Allah” need to be raised in the courts in other cases on the same topic, especially on the Home Minister’s powers to ban words and the scope of prohibitions. “There are other constitutional issues that have not been addressed and this can be taken up in other cases,” he said.
Mr Zainul Rijal Abu Bakar, president of the Muslim Lawyers Association, appeared to agree.
“Muslims are unhappy because the word ‘Allah’ was used to refer to a non-Muslim God, but it is not a blanket ruling that non-Muslims cannot use the word,” he added.
MCA politician Gan Peng Sieu, who is also a lawyer, described the Federal Court’s decision as a great injustice.
“The Federal Court is skirting away from answering constitutional issues which are left hanging. The people were expecting the Federal Court to do more as this is beyond politics. The duty of the Federal Court is to preserve and defend the Federal Constitution and the current state of the ‘Allah’ issue will not do any good for the country,” said Mr Gan, whose party, MCA, is a component member of the ruling Barisan Nasional government.