UN expert urges Malaysia to reverse restriction of 'Allah' to Muslims

(Photo: REUTERS / Bazuki Muhammad)Muslim activists walk to the Vatican embassy in to hand in a statement in protest of Archbishop Joseph Marino, the Vatican's first envoy to Malaysia, in Kuala Lumpur July 19, 2013. Marino opened a storm of controversy by apparently supporting the use of the word "Allah" by Christians, prompting a rebuke from the government and condemnation from nationalist Malay groups in the majority-Muslim country.

GENEVA, Switzerland - The United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, has urged Malaysia's government to reverse its decision to ban a Catholic publication from using the word "Allah" to refer to God.

Bielefeldt warned Monday that the case may have far-reaching implications for religious minorities in the country.

"Freedom of religion or belief is a right of human beings, not a right of the State," Bielefeldt stressed in a statement.

"It cannot be the business of the State to shape or reshape religious traditions, nor can the State claim any binding authority in the interpretation of religious sources or in the definition of the tenets of faith."

In January 2009, Malaysia's Ministry of Home Affairs ordered the Catholic weekly newspaper the Herald, to stop using the word "Allah" or face losing its publication permit.

The newspaper argued the ban was unconstitutional and won an appeal in the Malaysian High Court.

However, in October 2013, the Malaysian Court of Appeal unanimously ruled that non-Muslims cannot use "Allah" to refer to God.


Earlier in November the Geneva-based Lutheran World Federation expressed deep concern over the Court of Appeal ruling in Malaysia, forbidding the Roman Catholic publication from using the Malay-language word "Allah" for God.

In a November 5 letter to LWF church leaders in Malaysia, the president of the Lutheran federation, Bishop Munib A. Younan, and its general secretary, Rev. Martin Junge, called the ruling an attempt to suppress freedom of religion and expression in Malaysia.

The Lutheran leaders said the decision could lead to confusion, resentment and discord.

"This ruling ... goes against the centuries-old, well-accepted use of the word 'Allah' by Arab Christians in the Middle East and other parts of the world," they said.

In their letter to the Malaysian churches, Younan and Junge noted that Christians have been using the word "Allah" for more than 2,000 years.

"If Malay-speaking Christians would be forbidden to address God as 'Allah,' then their teaching, practice, worship and observance would no longer be free," they noted in the letter.

The Court of Appeal had, however, stated that the usage of the name "Allah" is not an integral part of the faith and practice of Christianity.

"Such usage, if allowed, would inevitably cause confusion within the community," the appeal court judges ruled. The case is currently pending consideration at the Federal Court level.

The Bahasa Malaysia, or standard Malay, translation for one God is "Allah," which entered the language from Arabic and has been used by Christians in the region for many centuries, the UN expert said in a his statement.

Bielefeldt cautioned that "the current case may affect the right of all non-Muslims in Malaysia to use the word 'Allah' while referring to God."

UN Independent Expert on minority issues Rita Izsák and U.N. Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression Frank La Rue echoed Bielefeldt's call.

"Discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief constitutes a violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and in this instance is a breach of the rights of a religious minority to freely practice and express their faith as they have done for generations. Such actions may present an obstacle to friendly and peaceful relations between faith communities," Izsák said.

For his part La Rue said, "The Ministry of Home Affairs and the Government of Malaysia should take necessary steps to secure immediately the right to freedom of opinion and expression of Herald – The Catholic Weekly and withdraw unconditionally from further litigation on this issue."

Copyright © 2013 Ecumenical News