In a landmark judgement, a Malaysian court on Monday ruled that non-Muslims cannot use the word "Allah" to refer to God and prohibited a Christian newspaper from using it in the Muslim-majority nation.
A unanimous decision of the Court of Appeal here allowed the government's appeal to set aside the 2009 decision of a high court which had allowed 'The Herald', a Malaysian Catholic newspaper, to use the word "Allah" to refer to God.
In December 2009, the high court had declared the decision by the home ministry prohibiting 'The Herald' from using the word "Allah" as illegal, null and void. Anger over that ruling had sparked arson attacks and vandalism at Malaysian churches and other places of worship.
Federal court judge Seri Mohamed Apandi Ali, leading a three-member panel, said it was the court's considered finding that the home minister had not acted in any manner or way that merited judicial interference on his decision to prohibit the publication to use the word "Allah".
"On evidence before us too we are satisfied that sufficient materials have been considered by the minister (home minister) in discharging his function and statutory power under the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984," he was quoted as saying by the Bernama news agency.
The judge said it was also the court's judgement that the condition set by the home ministry in the Herald's publication permit, which prohibited 'The Herald' from using the word "Allah", did not infringe any church's constitutional rights.
"It is our common finding that the usage of the name 'Allah' is not an integral part of the faith and practice of Christianity," said Justice Apandi, who read the summary of the decision. The other two judges presiding on the panel were Justices Abdul Aziz Abd Rahim and Mohd Zawawi Salleh.
Herald editor Father Lawrence Andrew, responding to the verdict, said the ruling was flawed and the church would appeal against the ruling. On February 16, 2010, the Roman Catholic Church led by Archbishop Tan Sri Murphy Pakiam filed a judicial review application, naming the home ministry and the government as respondents and seeking, among others, a declaration that the home ministry's decision to prohibit the use of the word "Allah" in The Herald publication was illegal.
The weekly, published in four languages, has been using the word "Allah" to refer to "God" in the Herald Malay-language section, especially to cater for the people in Sabah and Sarawak. "Allah" is the Arabic word for God and is commonly used in the Malay language to refer to God.
The Malaysian government insists that "Allah" should be exclusively reserved for Muslims due to concerns that its use by others would confuse Muslims and could be used to convert them.
Image: A Muslim demonstrator stands outside Malaysia's Court of Appeal outside Kuala Lumpur on Monday
Photograph: Samsul Said/Reuters