Malaysian Govt Appeals Ruling Allowing Christians to use ‘Allah’ in Publications

Hadi Azmi and Noah Lee
Kuala Lumpur
2021-03-15
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Malaysian Govt Appeals Ruling Allowing Christians to use ‘Allah’ in Publications A Muslim man stands outside the court as judges deliberate on a challenge to the ban on Christians using the word “Allah” in their religious publications, in Putrajaya outside Kuala Lumpur, June 23, 2014.
[Reuters]

Updated at 9:15 p.m. ET on 03-15-2021

The Malaysian government is appealing last week’s High Court ruling lifting a ban on Christian publications using the word “Allah” to refer to God, the attorney general told BenarNews on Monday.  The issue is highly charged in Muslim-majority Malaysia, where Christians have been using the word for centuries.  Major political parties had urged the government to appeal the ruling, which some Muslim groups said could lead to “confused” Muslims renouncing Islam and embracing “pluralist thinking.”  

Attorney General Idrus Harun confirmed that the notice of the appeal, dated Mar. 12, was submitted to the Court of Appeal on Monday, but did not give details.

“The submission on appeal was done today [Monday],” Harun told BenarNews via text message.

The submission, seen by BenarNews, said that the government along with Home Minister Hamzah Zainuddin decided to appeal because they were not satisfied with last week’s ruling by the Kuala Lumpur High Court.

“Take note that the appellants here, Minister of Home Affairs and the Government of Malaysia, who are not satisfied with the ruling of High Court Justice Nor Bee Ariffin that was delivered at the Malayan High Court in Kuala Lumpur on Mar.10, 2021, are hereby making an appeal to the Malaysian Court of Appeal on the entirety of the ruling,” said the government’s application for appeal.

 On Mar. 11, Nor Bee ended a decades-long ban when she ruled that Malaysian Christians are allowed to use the word “Allah” to refer to God, and three other Arabic words, in publications.

The 1986 Home Ministry directive barring the use of “Allah,” “Baitullah” (house of God), “Kaabah” (holiest shrine) and “solat” (prayer) by Christian publications was unconstitutional because it restricted religious freedom, she ruled. It was also illegal and irrational, because Malaysian Christians had used these words for more than 400 years, Nor Bee said.

PEMBELA, an umbrella group representing Muslim NGOs, lauded the government’s move to appeal.

“Congratulations to the Home Ministry for appealing. This is the result of the pressure from PEMBELA and other NGOs,” Aminuddin Yahaya, the group’s chairman, told BenarNews on Monday.

Aminuddin, who is also the head of a hardline Muslim pressure group ISMA, urged the government to ensure there is no “political meddling” in the appeal process. He also called for all state Islamic authorities to intervene in the case.

“The court must allow them to intervene because this issue is sensitive to the Muslim community,” he added.

BenarNews contacted defense lawyer Annou Xavier, who represented the Christian woman Jill Ireland Lawrence Bill in last week’s case, but he declined to comment on the government’s appeal.  

Calls to the Home Ministry were not immediately returned.

Divisive issue

Meanwhile, Religious Affairs Minister Zulkifli Mohamad Al-Bakri on Monday said he would hold a special meeting on the following day with leading Islamic jurists from all states to discuss last week’s high court ruling on the use of “Allah” by Christian publications.

He also said in a Facebook post that he had met with PEMBELA for a 45-minute discussion on the issue a day earlier.

On Sunday, the group issued a strongly-worded statement expressing “shock and disappointment” with the High Court’s ruling, which had “great implications” for Muslims.

“This contradicts the Federal Court's precedent decision. This decision gives room for abuse” of the word “Allah,” said the statement. “It will open wide the door for apostasy and pluralist thought.”

The Federal Court decision Aminuddin was referring to was a 2014 ruling – in a separate case – that upheld the government ban on the use of “Allah” by Christian publications.

Last week, Muafakat Nasional, a group that consists of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) – Malaysia’s oldest party and a partner in the ruling coalition – and the conservative Pan-Islamic Malaysian Party (PAS), had expressed “serious concern on the High Court decision to allow the use of Islamic terminology by non-Muslims in their respective publications.”

 Muafakat had also demanded the government appeal the ruling.

But James Masing, deputy chief minister of Malaysia’s Sarawak state, where Christians are in a majority, had called the appeal demand “ridiculous.”

“I believe the judge had considered all aspects of religious and cultural sensitivity when making the judgment,” Masing said in a statement last week, according to several local news publications.

“Thus, it is a most ridiculous demand by any political party or religious group in a multi-religious country like Malaysia.”

Masing also said that demanding the federal government appeal the High Court’s judgment was akin to seeking a review of Article 11 of the Federal Constitution, which allows freedom of religion in the country.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Muafakat Nasional's president attended the PEMBELA meeting on Sunday.

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