KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia’s top court weighed in Monday on the country’s longstanding fight over the word “Allah,” saying that non-Muslims could not use the term to refer to God.
However, the government said hours later the ruling applied only to one newspaper at the center of the case, adding still more confusion to a deeply divisive debate over religious freedom in the Muslim-majority country.
In a 4-3 ruling, the Federal Court upheld a government ban on the use of the word Allah by non-Muslims in a case against The Herald, a Catholic Malay-language weekly.
The court did not elaborate on the implication of its ruling, but the government issued a tersely worded statement saying it only applied to The Herald and that Malaysian Christians can still use the word Allah in churches.
The government statement appeared to be an attempt to diffuse tensions in the nation of 29 million people, including a large non-Muslim minority that has often complained that it is treated unfairly in jobs and education and is denied full freedom of religion.
This year, 300 Malay-language Bibles containing the word Allah were seized by Islamic authorities from the office of a Christian group.
“We are disappointed. The four judges who denied us the right to appeal did not touch on fundamental basic rights of minorities,” said the Rev. Lawrence Andrew, editor of The Herald.
He said the ruling would have a chilling effect on the freedom of religion guaranteed in the constitution.
“It will confine the freedom of worship,” he said.
“We are a minority in this country, and when our rights are curtailed, people feel it.”
In Egypt, where at least 10 percent of the population is Christian, both Muslims and Christians refer to God as Allah, and this hasn’t generated any controversy.