KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 27 — The Selangor Islamic Department’s (JAIS) plan to compel churches in the state to stop using “Allah” and other Arabic words would contravene constitutional guarantees on religion, faith leaders said today.
Church leaders and the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST) argued that no law can override provisions laid out in the Federal Constitution, which does not allow followers of any religion to impose their will on those of a different faith.
Father Lawrence Andrew, the editor of Catholic weekly the Herald — which is at the centre of a tussle between the Catholic Church and the federal government over the use of the word “Allah” — said the Federal Constitution is clear in that every religious group in the country has the right to manage its own affairs.
“You cannot just simply impose a law and say you cannot do this. What authority does Jais have over Christians?” he said when contacted by The Malay Mail Online.
“It goes against the constitution. We wait for the directive that comes from the Archbishop. He has to instruct us, not them. Not the police, not Jais, who has no authority to tell us what to do in our worship,” he said.
Yesterday, newly appointed director of Jais Ahmad Zaharin Mohd Saad said they will be sending out letters to all churches in Selangor asking them to comply with the ban on the use of 35 Arabic words listed under the Selangor Non-Islamic Religions (Control of Propagation Among Muslims) Enactment 1988.
The 1988 enactment prohibits non-Muslims in Selangor from using 35 Arabic words and phrases in their faith, including “Allah”, “Nabi” (prophet), “Injil” (gospel) and “Insya’Allah” (God willing).
Ahmad Zaharin added that the department will work closely with the police to increase enforcement of the Enactment, and will also push to amend the law to give a clearer definition of jurisdiction, of the officers authorised to act and widening its scope of offences.
MCCBCHST president Jagir Singh argued that there were no legal grounds to enforce Section 9 of the Enactment, especially when the High Court’s judgement in favour of the Catholic Church’s continued use of the word ‘Allah’ is taken into account.
“The High Court ruled that because Section 9 was made under Article 11(4) of the Federal Constitution, it only prohibits propagation of non-Muslim faiths to the Muslims and does not bar the use of the words by non-Muslims among themselves,” he said, noting that nine other states in the peninsula have a similar Enactment in place.
“The Court of Appeal never considered the part of the judgement that touches on Section 9, so as far as I am concerned, the High Court ruling stands,” he added, referring to the appellate court’s recent decision to overturn the lower court’s judgement.
Pastor Moses Soo, who helps manage the Evangelical movement in Orang Asli villages in Pahang and Kelantan, said it would severely affect the worship of the nearly 6,000 Orang Asli Christians if religious authorities start clamping down on the use of the words — some of which are prominently used in the Malay translation of the Bible.
“You can’t just do it. It’s like you eat every day, and suddenly you ask us not to eat. This is absurd,” he said when contacted.
“So they are asking the Christians to starve to death, because we will be short of spiritual food... it’s like asking us to stop Christianity overnight,” he said, adding that there are 40 Orang Asli churches serving 100 villages in the two states.
In an unsubstantiated report this week, Utusan Malaysia claimed that the International Full Gospel Fellowship held a closed-door function at an unnamed hotel in Klang, where the Christian group purportedly sang songs containing the word “Allah”.
The Umno-controlled Malay-language daily further reported that a board in the hotel hall informing of the gathering had featured the words: “International Full Gospel Fellowship: Keluarga Allah Satelit Nilai dan Satelit Puchong, ‘Dari dalam gelap akan terbit terang’”. The English translation reads: “God’s family, Nilai and Puchong satellites, ‘Light will shine strong from the darkness’”.
The tussle over “Allah” arose in 2008 when Catholic newspaper The Herald was barred by the Home Ministry from using the Arabic word.
The Catholic Church had contested this in court and won a High Court decision in 2009 upholding its constitutional right to do so.
Putrajaya later appealed the decision and successfully overturned the earlier decision when the Court of Appeal ruled this October that “Allah” was not integral to the Christian faith.
Despite the ban, the effects had previously not intruded directly into the everyday worship of Christians; it has so far been limited to a prohibition against the Herald printing the word, and the earlier seizure of Christian religious materials, including the Al-Kitab Malay-language bibles and compact discs that contain the word “Allah”.
The shipments of the Al-Kitab were subsequently released but the compact discs have yet to be returned to its owner who has filed a lawsuit against the government.
The Catholic Church has since the October ruling appealed to the country’s top court for clarity on the religious row that has drawn deep lines between Malaysia’s non-Muslim minorities and its 60 per cent Muslim population, with the Federal Court fixing February 24 next year to hear the application for appeal.