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Malaysia churches pray to ‘Allah’ despite ban

A woman prays inside the church of Our Lady of Lourdes at Klang, outside Kuala Lumpur January 12, 2014. The Sunday Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic church seems like a model for the multicultural, tolerant Malaysia that its government likes to present to the outside world. A long tussle over who can say "Allah" in Malaysia has flared anew, as Islamization that many see as driven by political forces threatens to erode the secular constitution and minority rights in the ethnically diverse coun

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysian churches defiantly continued to use the word “Allah” to refer to the Christian God in Sunday services despite the Muslim-majority country’s leader saying they must obey rules against it. Malay-speaking Christians prayed and sang hymns using the Arabic word, a practice they have observed for hundreds of years but which is now the focus of an increasingly tense religious row in the country.

“They all contain the word ‘Allah,’” a pastor at a church near the capital Kuala Lumpur said of the songs sung by his congregation.

“[The Malay-language Bible] contains the word ‘Allah.’ When we preach we have to read the text. It’s a really difficult situation,” he added on condition of anonymity.

Under pressure from Muslim conservatives, Prime Minister Najib Razak said Friday that Malaysian Christians must heed rules forbidding them from using the word.

Islamist leaders in the country say “Allah” – which also is used by Malay Muslims to refer to their creator – is exclusive to their religion and must not be used by non-Muslims.

Muslim ethnic Malays make up more than 60 percent of the diverse country’s 28 million people.

Malaysia has sizeable ethnic Chinese, Indian and other communities, and some 2.6 million people of residents are Christians.

Church leaders have vowed not to back down.

“Christians in Malaysia have no choice but to use the Malay-language Bibles. To say they cannot use these Bibles, it means saying ‘you are not allowed to worship in the language that you want,’” Rev. Hermen Shastri, general secretary of the Council of Churches of Malaysia, told AFP.

The government in 2007 ordered a Malaysian Catholic weekly newspaper to cease use of the word, arguing it could entice Muslims to convert, which is illegal for adherents of Islam in Malaysia.

The newspaper has launched a long-running court challenge, angering Muslim conservatives, who have demanded Christians use alternative Malay words.

“Why insist? They have an option. They don’t really have to use ‘Allah’ to worship,” said Yusri Mohammad, chairman of Muslim rights group Pembela. “This is unnecessary provocation ... This is not healthy for Malaysia.”

Muslim conservatives have suggested that Christians use other Malay words, such as “Tuhan,” to refer to God.

Malaysia has avoided overt religious conflict for decades and the Southeast Asian nation is generally seen as a moderate Muslim country.

However, non-Muslims allege growing intolerance by influential Islamic conservatives.

“We feel angry. It’s unfair,” a Christian church-goer said after Sunday’s service. “It’s no longer peaceful between Christians and Muslims now.”

The Malaysian Catholic Church argues that “Allah” has been used by Christians in the country for hundreds of years and that the word predates Islam’s founding.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 27, 2014, on page 10.

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