By Debra Chong (Malaysianinsider—March 9, 2010)
KUALA LUMPUR: The issue of Christians not being allowed to use “Allah” goes back to the 1980s when the authorities ring-fenced a list of Arabic terms first on national security grounds then later in order to prevent confusion among Muslims.
The National Evangelical Christian Fellowship (NECF), an umbrella body for Christian groups in Malaysia, said the use of the word “Allah” became a “problem” because of the distortion of certain facts by a government department in the mid-1980s.
“First, they say it is national security. Then they say it will confuse Muslims. But why are they listening only to Jakim?” quizzed NECF’s Bahasa Malaysia section executive secretary Alfred Tais, referring to the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia. The department proposed a ban of certain Arabic words being used by non-Muslims which was then endorsed by the Cabinet in 1986. However no action was taken to completely enforce the ruling until 2007, prompting the Catholic weekly Herald to dispute it.
The Sidang Injil Borneo (SIB), an evangelical church founded in 1928, also wanted a review of the decision three years ago after a shipment of imported Christian religious books meant for Sunday school children were seized by the Royal Customs and Excise Department at the KLIA low-cost carrier terminal (LCCT). The ministry’s basis for doing so was because the books contain the word “Allah” and may confuse Muslims although the books are meant for Christians only.
But the Home ministry, which also oversees the Customs department, quietly returned the books to SIB two years ago, just before the historic 12th General Elections which saw Barisan Nasional lose its traditional two-thirds grip on Parliament.
The ministry then followed up with a letter signed by Yaacob Samat from its Publication Control and Al-Quran Text division, in reply to the SIB’s earlier appeal and listed 16 reasons for the ban, which are:
1. “That Article 3(1) of the Federal Constitution states that Islam is the official religion of the Federation.
2. “That Article 11(4) of the Federal Constitution permits laws to be made to control or restrict the propagation of any religious doctrine or belief among persons professing the religion of Islam.
3. “That several states have made laws or control or restrict propagation among persons professing the religion of Islam and have prohibited the use of certain words or phrases of the religion of Islam in publications of other religions.
4. “That due to the differences in the words and phrases prohibited, confusion has arisen as to what words and phrases are prohibited in particular in Christian publications in the Indonesian language.
5. “That in the late 1970s and early 1980s there was uneasiness among the community and problems of enforcement among religious officers in the various states due to differences as to the words and phrases prohibited.
6. “That following the above, the issue had become sensitive and had been classified as a security issue.
7. “That the Government had decided that the Ministry of Internal Security [now called the home ministry] which controls published materials under Section 7(1) of the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 is to deal with the issue.
8. “That vide PU (A) 15/82, the Government had gazetted the prohibition of the Alkitab in Malaysia under Section 22 of the Internal Security Act 1960.
9. “That special exemption was made to the said prohibition vide PU (A) 134 permitting the Alkitab to be possessed by Christians in churches.
10. “That there was continuing confusion and uneasiness in the community when enforcement on the use of the words and phrases in religious publications was not effective.
11. “That on 19.5.1986, the Government had decided that the words ‘Allah’, ‘Kaabah’, ‘Baitullah’ and ‘Solat’ are words and phrases exclusive to the religion of Islam and cannot be used in published materials of other religions save to explain concepts pertaining to the religion of Islam.
12. “That the Government had permitted the use of the Alkitab by Christians in churches only and not in any other places.
13. “That the aforesaid permission did not extend to other Christian publications other than the translation of the Bible in Bahasa Malaysia, i.e. the Alkitab.
14. “That the Government practices religious freedom as enshrined in the Federal Constitution but bears the responsibility of avoiding any confusion in the community of various religions which if allowed to occur will threaten security and public order.
15. “That religious sensitivity must be respected and preserved by all.
16. “That the Applicants [SIB] as a religious institution with a large number of followers also bears the responsibility for promoting religious harmony in the community.”
The ministry told the church to just comply, leaving no room for disagreement. Two judges, Datuk Abdul Kadir Musa and Datuk Aziah Ali, who have been entrusted to sort out the dispute have been eagerly pushing for the two parties to settle without the court’s interference, especially after another High Court ruled on the Catholic Herald’s case on the use of the same word three months ago.
The Home ministry plans to appeal against this even as it is holding closed-door talks with the Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur. The High Court has given the state and SIB until April 30 to try and settle the dispute amicably, failing which it will set a hearing date.