KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia: A Roman Catholic newspaper cleared its first legal hurdle Monday in its fight against a Malaysian government ban on Christians using the word “Allah” as a synonym for “God.”
High Court Judge Lau Bee Lan ruled that prosecutors’ objection to a lawsuit by The Herald weekly was “without merit.”
The judge said she will allow the paper — the main media organ of the Catholic church in Muslim-majority Malaysia — to contest the government ban in court.
The Herald is seeking to reverse a government order that prohibits the paper from using the word “Allah” as a synonym for God in its Malay-language section. The government says the word refers only to the Muslim God and its use by Christians might confuse Muslims. It has threatened to revoke the paper’s publishing license if it defies the order.
The Herald also wants a court declaration that “Allah” is not for exclusive use by Muslims.
“The court agreed that the church’s application is not frivolous nor vexatious nor an abuse of process. It deserves to be heard,” said Derek Fernandez, a lawyer for the newspaper.
The court will set a trial date later, Fernandez told reporters.
The Herald — which publishes in the English, Malay, Mandarin and Tamil languages — insists that “Allah” is an Arabic word that predates Islam and has been used for centuries to mean “God” in Malay.
The case is an example of Malaysian religious minorities’ increasing complaints that their rights have been undermined by government efforts to bolster the status of Islam, Malaysia’s official religion.
Ethnic Malays, virtually all of them Muslims, make up nearly 60 percent of Malaysia’s 27 million people. The main minorities are ethnic Chinese and Indians, and most of them are Buddhists, Christians and Hindus.
Dissatisfaction with court rulings over Muslims’ legal right to leave Islam — along with other religious issues like state authorities’ demolition of Hindu temples, contributed to the ruling government coalition’s poor performance in March elections — when it lost its two-thirds majority in Parliament.
In a separate case in Malaysia, the Sabah Evangelical Church of Borneo has also filed a lawsuit in an effort to be allowed to use “Allah” after officials last year banned the import of books containing the word. Hearings in that case were still in the preliminary stages.