KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysia’s top court ruled Monday that non-Muslims cannot use the word “Allah” to refer to God, delivering the final word on a contentious debate that has reinforced complaints that religious minorities are treated unfairly in the Muslim-majority country.
In a 4-3 judgment, the Federal Court rejected a challenge by the Roman Catholic Church and upheld a government ban on the use of the word. Most Christians in Malaysia worship in English, Tamil or various Chinese dialects, and refer to God in those languages but some Malay-speaking people on Borneo island have no other word for God but “Allah,” a Malay word derived from Arabic.
The church had argued that the ban failed to consider the rights of all minorities in the largely Muslim nation. The lengthy court cases, which began in 2009, had also raised the fundamental question whether freedom of religion guaranteed by the constitution is real.
“We are disappointed. The four judges who denied us the right to appeal did not touch on fundamental basic rights of minorities,” said Rev. Lawrence Andrew, editor of The Herald, the newspaper at the center of the controversy.
“It will confine the freedom of worship,” he said. “We are a minority in this country, and when our rights are curtailed, people feel it.”
The Federal Court ruled that the church had no grounds to appeal last year’s lower court decision that banned the use of “Allah” in the Malay-language weekly. The Catholic Church may ask the court to review the decision, Andrew said.
The government says Allah should be reserved exclusively for Muslims, who make up nearly two-thirds of the country’s 29 million people. If other religions use the term, that could confuse Muslims and lead them to convert away from Islam, it claims.
Christian leaders deny this, arguing that the ban is unreasonable because Christians who speak the Malay language have long used the word in their Bibles, prayers and songs. Christians make up about 9 percent of the population.
The ban appears to apply mostly to published materials, not spoken words, and newspapers using the term would lose their license. Imported Malay-language Bibles containing the term Allah, typically from Indonesia, already have been blocked. Beyond that, it wasn’t clear what the punishment would be for violating the ban.
“This is a sad state of affairs that shows how far and fast religious tolerance is falling in Malaysia,” said Phil Robertson, a spokesman for Human Rights Watch. “The Malaysian government should be working to promote freedom of religion rather politically exploiting religious wedge issues.”
The controversy has provoked violence in Malaysia.
Anger over a lower court ruling against the government ban in 2009 led to a string of arson attacks and vandalism at churches and other places of worship. A 2013 judgment by the Court of Appeals reversed that decision, prompting the Catholic church to ask the Federal Court to overturn it.
An umbrella group of Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox churches in Malaysia said Christians will continue to use the word Allah in their Bibles and worship, saying the court ruling was only confined to the Catholic newspaper.
“We maintain that the Christian community continues to have the right to use the word `Allah’ in our Bibles, church services and Christian gatherings,” Rev. Eu Hong Seng, chairman of the Christian Federation of Malaysia, said in a statement.
Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told reporters he welcomed the ruling, but said he hoped no groups would politicize the matter and use it to divide races.
“This is an emotional issue that can affect the country’s (racial) harmony. We must handle it with wisdom,” he said. “The court has made a decision, so let’s accept it.”
Some experts believe the Allah issue is an attempt by Prime Minister Najib Razak’s ruling Malay party to strengthen its conservative Muslim voter base. Religion has become an easy tool because government policies have made Islam and Malay identity inseparable.
“This is a situation that is peculiar to Malaysia. It is tied to politics and the identity of Malays. It is a bending of the interpretation of Islam to suit Malay politics and Malay interests,” said Ibrahim Suffian, who heads the Merdeka Center opinion research company.
The issue hasn’t surfaced in other majority Muslim nations with sizeable Christian minorities.
In Egypt, where at least 10 percent of the population is Christian, both Muslims and Christians refer to God as “Allah,” and this hasn’t generated any controversy or antagonism. Christians often refer to God as “al-Rab” in their liturgy, but use “Allah” more frequently in their daily life.
The same is true for Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation. Both groups use “Allah” – although Christians pronounce it “Al-lah” and Muslims say “Al-loh,” so you can tell which religion the speaker is – but this hasn’t caused friction.
“My question is, if in other countries, `Allah’ as a term for God is not made exclusive, I am surprised how come the use of the term can be limited by any religion elsewhere in the world,” said Fr. Francis Lucas, president of the Catholic Media Network Corp., the broadcast arm of the Catholic Church in the Philippines.
Associated Press Writers Niniek Karmini in Jakarta, Jim Gomez in Manila, Maamoun Youssef in Cairo, Amir Bibawy in New York and Vijay Joshi and Malcolm Foster in Bangkok contributed to this report.