Getting along in the name of God

This article is taken from The Economist.

Allah, Malaysia and the WCC

Getting along in the name of God

Feb 28th 2014, 17:29 by B.C.

IN A haunting song that can moisten eyes in either country, the Greek singer George Dalaras describes a Christian compatriot and a Turkish Muslim sitting near the Bosporus, toasting friendship and vowing not to let religion divide two down-trodden sons of toil. He imagines the Turk crooning: “You have Christ, I have Allah, but we both say “ach” and “ah…”

But what if it’s a Christian who wants to say Allah, because that ancient Semitic term happens to be the only or main word he knows for God?  That is the situation for Arabic-speaking Christians, and for Christians who speak the language common to Malaysia and Indonesia, often known as Bahasa. In Malaysia, there has been a long and lamentable legal battle over the issue, as Muslims with high-level official support lobby to prevent Christians from addressing Allah. (Malaysia’s opposition leader Anwar Ibrahaim, although a devout Muslim, takes a different view; he defends the right of Christians to use the A-word.)

This week, the World Council of Churches, which speaks for more than 300 Protestant and Orthodox religious groups in over 100 countries, took a stand on the issue. It is supporting the Malaysian Catholic church’s request to appeal against the latest judicial decision, one that upheld the ban on their use of Allah. As befits a cautious organisation, which avoids picking inter-faith fights and devotes a lot of its energy to progressive causes of a social, economic or ecological kind, the words are carefully chosen. Olav Fykse Tveit, the agency’s Norwegian secretary-general, says in a letter to Malaysian churches:       

As members of the family of Abrahamic faiths, Muslims and Christians share a common belief in the unity of God, and a common theological thread of love of God and love of neighbour has been central to interfaith relations in societies where these faiths co-exist. Sadly, the recognition of this shared heritage and current need is obscured by this regrettable legal precedent and the political discourse that surrounds it. I share the concern expressed by the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, that this case may have far-reaching implications for religious minorities in Malaysia, and the region. I am therefore writing to express the World Council of Churches’ solidarity and support in your efforts to address this challenge and to restore the example of Malaysia’s multi-religious society, through an application for leave to appeal against the court’s decision, due to be heard on 5 March.

A WCC spokesman noted that the Malaysian restrictions on the use of the word created an “anomalous situation” not seen in any other country, and were threatening to overshadow inter-faith relations in a country where they had historically been relatively good. Will Mr Fykse Tveit’s letter help, just a little, to fix the situation? Let’s hope so.