Sabah lawyers offer to stand with Catholic Church in appeal against Allah ruling

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The Sabah Law Association (SLA) wants to stand side by side with the Catholic Church when the Allah case goes before the Federal Court, a sure sign of the widening impact of restricting the word to Muslims only.

The SLA met on Saturday and made the decision after concluding that the Court of Appeal ruling on October 14 had violated the constitutional rights of Christians in Sabah.

"The SLA will apply to be part of the proceedings in the Federal Court," a member of the association told The Malaysian Insider.

SLA president Datuk G.B.B. Naandy@Gaanesh is expected to issue an official statement soon.

The SLA decision to join the appeal came after reports on Saturday that Putrajaya had stopped the distribution of 2,000 copies of this week's edition of the Herald in Sabah when the consignment arrived at the Kota Kinabalu airport on Thursday. The weekly was cleared for distribution yesterday morning but the weekend break meant it could not be sent to churches.

The decision to stop the distribution came despite an assurance last Monday by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak that Christians in the state were free to use Allah in their worship and publications.

A check with civil lawyers revealed that the SLA could apply to be an intervener in the proceedings, just like Islamic councils which became parties to the action in the Court of Appeal.

Another way is for the Federal court to invite the SLA to come to court, while the third choice is for SLA to apply to hold a watching brief and address the judges. It was not immediately clear which
option the SLA would take.

On October 14, the Court of Appeal allowed Putrajaya's appeal to prohibit the Herald from using Allah because, in its judgment, the word was not an integral part of the Christian faith and practice.

The Catholic Church’s lawyers, meanwhile, said they would be filing a leave application early next week to appeal against the ruling.

Last week, The Malaysian Insider reported that politicians from East Malaysia argued that the controversial Court of Appeal ruling was a breach of the Malaysia agreement.

Constitutional lawyers also weighed in on the issue, saying it would clearly be a breach of the 1963 Malaysia agreement if East Malaysian Christians were to be barred from using the word Allah in any part of the federation.

Sabah State Reform Party (Star) chairman Datuk Dr Jeffrey Kitingan (pic, right) said the Court of Appeal ruling went against the first point of the agreement which touched on freedom of religion.

Point 1 of the 20-point condition that Sabah drew up and the 18-point condition Sarawak drew up, which Malaya had to agree to before forming Malaysia, stated that: “While there was no objection to Islam being the national religion of Malaysia, there should be no state religion in Borneo (Sarawak & Sabah), and the provisions relating to Islam in the present Constitution of Malaya should not apply to Borneo.”

Kitingan, a vocal proponent of restoring the full autonomy and rights of Sabah and Sarawak under the 20 and 18-point agreements, also pointed out that the country's first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, had given a clear assurance on religious freedom in Parliament on October 16, 1961.

He then quoted Tunku: “One reaction in the Borneo territories was that the Malaysia concept was an attempt to colonise the Borneo territories... the answer to this was, as I said before, it is legally impossible for the federation to colonise because we desire that they should join us in the federation in equal partnership, enjoying the same status between one another, so there is no fear that Malaysia will mean that there will be an imposition of Islam on Borneo... so everybody is free to practise whatever religion.”

Kitingan said Sabah natives marked the assurance of religious freedom in the Malaysia agreement by literally carving it in stone, the Batu Sumpah or Oath Stone.

“It essentially states that as long as this religious freedom is respected, we shall be loyal to Malaysia,” added Kitingan, who in 2010 founded the United Borneo Front (UBF), a non-governmental organisation aimed at safeguarding the rights of Sabah and Sarawak in the 20-point and 18-point agreements.

Echoing Kitingan's view that the Court of Appeal ruling had breached the agreement was Sarawak PKR chairman Baru Bian (pic, left).

“This decision is a betrayal of the undertaking given to our forefathers when they agreed to join in the formation of Malaysia,” Baru said.

“The rights of Sarawakians and Sabahans were also protected in the Government Paper 'Malaysia and Sarawak' dated January 4, 1962.”

Baru said the paper stated that “although Malaysia would have Islam as the official religion of the enlarged federation, there would be no hindrance placed on the practice of other religions. Complete freedom of religion would be guaranteed in the Federal Constitution”.

“This repugnant and oppressive decision of the court confirms the fears of our forefathers and gives justification to the voice of the 60% who were against joining the formation of Malaysia in 1963.”

Baru, who is also the assemblyman for the rural seat of Ba Kelalan, said the people of Sarawak are getting very close to, if they have not yet reached, “the sour end of the sugarcane” – a reference to the scepticism and doubts voiced by one of Malaysia's founding fathers, Tun Jugah Barieng, on the sincerity of Sarawak's long-term position in Malaysia.

“Today, not only it is the end of the sugarcane, it also leaves a bitter taste in our mouths,” added Baru.

Lawyer Karpal Singh said the constitutional guarantee did not limit East Malaysians to practising their religions in their own territories.

"As such, Christians from Sabah and Sarawak must be allowed to use the word in other parts of Malaysia or this will violate the agreement," he told The Malaysian Insider.

He said it was unfortunate that the agreement and its impact on Christians were not highlighted in the Court of Appeal. – October 28, 2013.

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