Malaysian Christians stand firm on use of ‘Allah’

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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Christian leaders in Malaysia refused Tuesday to stop using the word “Allah” for God despite attacks on churches in a religious crisis that has raised concerns about the erosion of minority rights in the Muslim-majority country.

Daniel Raut, a senior leader of the Borneo Evangelical Church — the largest Malay-speaking congregation in the country — said it will not drop the use of the word “Allah,” even though Christians fear for their safety.

“Since our forefathers become Christians in the 1920s, we have been using Allah even in our mother tongue,” said Raut, who is from the Lumbawang tribe in eastern Sarawak state. “We are quite fearful (for our safety) but we will pray for protection and believe God will intervene in this matter.”

Nine churches have been attacked since Friday, with the assailants using firebombs and in one case, paint. The unprecedented attacks have strained ties between Christians and the majority Malay Muslims, denting Malaysia’s image as a moderate Muslim-majority nation.

The attacks were triggered by a Dec. 31 High Court decision that overturned a government ban on the use of “Allah” by Roman Catholics in the Malay-language edition of their main newspaper, the Herald. The ban and the ruling also apply to Malay-language Bibles, 10,000 copies of which were recently seized by authorities because they translated God as Allah.

The government has condemned the attacks as the work of extremists, but also has appealed the ruling. Jamil Khir Baharom, the Cabinet minister responsible for Islamic affairs, called on Christian leaders to drop the use of “Allah” to help ease tensions.

About 9 percent of Malaysia’s 28 million people are Christian, most of whom are indigenous tribespeople in the remote Sabah and Sarawak states on Borneo island. Muslims make up 60 percent of the population and most are ethnic Malays.

Raut was in court early Tuesday to support church member Jill Ireland, who sued the government in 2008 after airport authorities seized eight of her Christian compact discs with the word “Allah” printed on them. The trial is set for March 15. The Borneo church also sued the government in 2007 after custom officials seized six cartons of Christian literature containing the word “Allah.”

The Borneo church was formed in Sarawak state in 1928, nearly 30 years before Malaysia’s independence, but has since expanded nationwide and has some 250,000 members, a majority of them who use Allah in their worship and literature.

Alfred Tais, who heads the Malay language section of the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship Malaysia, said there are at least 300 churches in peninsular Malaysia and hundreds more on Borneo that worship in the Malay language using “Allah.”

“We won’t hold any protests. Our response is to pray for peace. We have mobilized all our members to pray that God will give our leaders wisdom to find a solution to this problem,” he said.

The Allah ban is unusual in the Muslim world. The Arabic word is commonly used by Christians to describe God in such countries as Egypt, Syria and Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation.