The government of Muslim-majority Malaysia will not renew a Catholic newspaper's license to publish unless it stops using the word "Allah" to denote God.
The editor of the Herald has come up against an issue that has affected inter-religious relations before in the Southeast Asian country, which is often cited as an example of pluralistic democracy in the Muslim world.
Shortly before Christmas, the Internal Security Ministry sent a directive ordering the weekly to drop the use of the word "Allah," when referring to the God who Christians worship, editor Fr. Lawrence Andrew said Wednesday.
Instead, the newspaper should use the word "Tuhan," which is a general term for God in the language spoken by the majority of Malaysians, Bahasa Malaysia.
A ministry official was quoted as saying that "Allah" referred only to the Muslim god, and its use was designed to confuse Muslims.
About 60 percent of Malaysia's 27 million people are Muslim Malays. Large ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities are Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and followers of other smaller faiths.
The constitution guarantees religious freedom, but Islam is the official religion, despite the fact that 40 percent of the population is not Muslim. Furthermore, the constitution states that all Malays are Muslim -- a stipulation critics say makes it difficult for a Malay to convert to or profess another faith. Minorities also frequently complain about discrimination.
The instruction to the Herald, which publishes sections in Bahasa Malaysia, English, Tamil and Mandarin, has stirred controversy.
Under restrictive media laws, the newspaper -- like others in Malaysia -- is required to have an official permit that must be renewed annually. It expires on Dec. 31.
"Malaysians are truly dumbfounded that the use of a single, widely used term to refer to the Almighty could be the basis for denying a basic right -- the freedom to publish," Aliran, a Malaysian reform organization "dedicated to justice, freedom and solidarity," said in a statement.
It challenged Prime Minister Ahmed Badawi, who promotes a moderate interpretation of Islam, to speak out and clarify the issue.
Lim Kit Siang, leader of the secular opposition Democratic Action Party, said the government order was "another signal that Malaysia is going down the slippery slope of more religious restrictions for non-Muslim faiths, whose constitutionally-entrenched guarantees of freedom of religion are not being honored by the government."
Aliran and others note that the Arabic word "Allah" was used as a name for a supreme being even before Mohammed established Islam in the seventh century. Many Christian Arabs use the same word for God.
Nonetheless, there are considerable differences in the Judeo-Christian and Islamic conceptions of God (not least of all the concept of the Trinity and God becoming man in the form of Jesus, versus the Koranic injunction that Allah "begets not, nor is he begotten."). Many evangelical and other Christians hold the view that Muslims and Christians do not worship "the same god."
Andrew, the Herald editor, said the ministry was trying to suppress the Bahasa Malaysia section of the newspaper. He pointed out that the word for God in the Bible in the Malay language is Allah, and said it was thus natural that that word be used.
"Surely we all know that no one can change the words of the Koran, likewise no editor can change the words of the [Bahasa Malaysia Bible]," he argued.
Andrew said many Bahasa Malaysia-speakers read the Herald, and by forcing the paper to stop publishing that section, the government was "curtailing the rights of Christian citizens who want to practice their faith -- to know more of the faith activities or be informed of faith events that are going to take place."
"This amounts to interfering in the internal activities of a religious group and ... contradicts the constitution," he said.
Andrew said the newspaper had been encouraged by the considerable "intellectual support" it has received from quarters including Aliran and the Bar Council, a body of legal practitioners in Malaysia.
This isn't the first time the use of the word Allah by non-Muslims has caused contention in Malaysia.
In 2003, the issue prompted a government decision to ban a Bible published in the tongue of a small indigenous ethnic group. The ban was later reversed after protests.
In another recent sign of cracks along ethnic and religious lines in Malaysia, tens of thousands of ethnic Indian Hindus took to the streets in November to protest what they say are discriminatory policies that favor ethnic Malays at the expense of minorities. Among other things, the Hindus complained about the destruction of temples which officials say are illegal.
Police used teargas and water cannon to disperse the demonstration, prompting the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a statutory body that advises the administration and Congress, to call on the government to protect the religious and other rights of Hindus and other non-Muslims in Malaysia.
"The rights of one religious group should not trump the most basic of all individual human rights, the right to follow one's own conscience," said commission chairman Michael Cromartie.
Abdullah, the prime minister, accused some Hindu activists of stirring up racial conflict.
Malaysian Indian non-governmental organizations last week asked the government to set up a department to deal with non-Muslim affairs, including the demolition of temples, and problems arising from conversions. But the government ruled out the idea.
"It is difficult to set up such a dedicated department as the other religions don't fall under the official religion category," the official Bernama news agency quoted Deputy Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak as saying.
Malaysia does have an Islamic Affairs ministry.
Malaysia is a major trading partner of the U.S., and officials from the two countries are currently negotiating a free-trade agreement.
It is also a leading member of the Organization of the Islamic Conference and Non-Aligned Movement, and takes an active role on behalf of developing countries at the United Nations.
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