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.
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The latest tensions began with a Dec. 31 court decision that allowed Roman Catholics to refer to Allah in Malay-language sections of their weekly newspaper. The government has appealed the ruling, which overturned a three-year-old government ban.
Many Malaysian Muslims say the term Allah is exclusive to their faith, and on Friday a few hundred held a noisy, albeit brief, protest at a mosque in downtown Kuala Lumpur, chanting “Allahu Akbar,” or God is great, as scores of police looked on warily.
“For non-Muslims to use this word is an unnecessary provocation,” said Faisal Aziz, president of the National Union of Malaysian Muslim Students and one of the protest organizers.
The court ruled that Malay-speaking Christians have a constitutional right to refer to God as Allah. The Malay language doesn’t have an exact translation for the concept of one single deity, and Malays and indigenous tribes borrowed the term Allah from Arab traders in the 12th century.
Today, many Malay-speaking Christians from Sabah and Sarawak states on the island of Borneo frequently use the term, as do Indonesian Christians and Christians in Arabic-speaking countries in the Middle East. The word Allah itself predates Islam. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, a prominent figure in progressive Islamic circles in Malaysia and the Middle East, on Saturday said banning people from using the term “makes a mockery of the religion.”