As ‘Allah’ appeal nears, Borneo churches say ban violates Malaysia Agreement

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By Boo Su-Lyn October 10, 2013

A traditional herbal medicine seller waits for customers at Donggongon Tamu (Pasar Donggongon) in Penampang, Sabah on August 30, 2013. A chairman of the Association of Churches in Sarawak said that prohibiting churches from using KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 10 — With the courts just days from deciding on the “Allah” appeal, the churches of Sabah and Sarawak banded together today to insist that prohibiting Christians from calling their god “Allah” violates the 1963 Malaysia Agreement upon which the country was founded

Ahead of the Monday ruling by the Court of Appeal on whether the Christian Church can use the Arabic word, the East Malaysian churches stressed that it was “completely unacceptable” to bar such usage that has been their common practice for centuries.

“This is abhorrent, wholly unacceptable and a flagrant betrayal of the Malaysia Agreement which guarantees the inalienable rights of non-Muslims in Sarawak and Sabah to religious freedom,” [Anglican Archbishop] Datuk Bolly Lapok, chairman of the Association of Churches in Sarawak, said in a statement today.


“The Bumiputera church will continue to use the Bahasa Malaysia Alkitab, together with the word ‘Allah’, both of which are fundamental to all aspects of the profession and practice of the Christian faith,” he added.

Bishop Datuk Dr Thomas Tsen, president of the Sabah Council of Churches, pointed out in an accompanying statement that two-thirds of Christians in Malaysia are Bumiputeras in Sabah and Sarawak, numbering at 1.6 million, who use Bahasa Malaysia and indigenous languages in their prayer services.

“With the greatest respect to the governing authorities, whether they are the legislative, executive or judicial arms of government, we ask that religious bigotry, racism and extremism should not be perpetuated and allowed to fester and poison our Malaysian nation,” said Tsen.

“Specifically with regard to the use of the word ‘Allah’, proscribing the use of the word ‘Allah’ would instantly turn these native Bumiputera into law-breakers in the very land of which they are the sons of the soil,” he added.

The appellate court in August ruled in favour of allowing the government’s appeal against the 2009 High Court decision, which has been at the centre of frosty interfaith ties in the country over the last three years.

The 2009 High Court decision, which upheld the Catholic Church’s constitutional right to use the word “Allah” in its weekly publication The Herald, had shocked Malaysian Muslims who considered the word to be exclusive to Islam.

It also led to a string of attacks against houses of worship, including the firebombing of a church, as Malaysian Muslims generally consider “Allah” to refer exclusively to their god.

Both Lapok and Tsen pointed out today that the Government Paper “Malaysia and Sarawak”, dated January 4, 1962 and which is reflected in the corresponding Government of North Borneo Paper, states: “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”.

The church leaders also stressed that the 10-point agreement issued by the Najib administration in 2011 allows the printing, importation and distribution of the Alkitab, the Malay-language bible, which contain the word “Allah”.

“We would reiterate that Sabah and Sarawak consented to form Malaysia in 1963 with Islam as the religion of the federation on the express condition that there will be complete freedom of religion without any hindrance placed on other religions,” they said.

East Malaysia has largely escaped the brunt of the controversy over the “Allah” issue, save for a prohibition on the shipment of the AlKitab to the states that was eventually rescinded ahead of the Sarawak state election on 2011; the matter also led to the Cabinet’s 10-point agreement.

Although government and Islamic authorities insist the “Allah” ban would be limited to peninsular Malaysia where Malay-Muslims are the dominant community, there exists concern that such a restriction would eventually apply to all of the country.