Malaysian Court Rules Christians Can Use 'Allah' in Landmark Judgment

Malaysia's policy of not allowing non-Muslim publications from using the word "Allah" has been overturned, adding a new chapter to the decades-old controversy.

The Malaysian High Court ordered on Wednesday that the 1986 directive by the Home Ministry proscribing publications from using the word Allah was "unlawful and unconstitutional."

In 2015, Malaysia's Federal Court rejected the Catholic Church's request to lift the ban on non-Muslims using the word "Allah" to refer to God. The court also clarified that the word has been banned only in the Church's newspaper and Malaysian Christians can use the word "Allah" in the church.

Giving the new verdict, the court highlighted that the constitution granted all citizens equality before the law and that individuals have the right to education and to practice religion, the complainant's lawyer, Annou Xavier, told Reuters.

Case from 2008

Malaysian authorities seized Malay-language religious books and compact discs at Kuala Lumpur airport in 2008, setting off the court battle. Jill Ireland, a Malaysian Christian, approached the courts seeking to establish her constitutional rights.

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A view of flowers in front of Malaysia's Federal Court Reuters

It's a convention among Malay-speaking Christians to use the word Allah to refer to God. The practise is wider in the Borneo islands, where people have been using it for centuries.

The use of the word by Christians had often created religious tensions in mainly Muslim Malaysia. Christians comprise only around 9 percent of Malaysia's population.

Wednesday's ruling, the court reiterated, will not contradict the 2015 verdict as the matter is about an individual's constitutional rights, the agency reported, citing the complainant's lawyer.

Neighboring Indonesia has also seen tensions related to the use of the word Allah by Christians. In 2016, some 14 people, including several journalists and the employees of a popular hotel were questioned by the police after it was reported that a hotel in Jambi was decorated with a Christmas tree with cut-outs of the word "Allah [God]" in Arabic script.

The governor of the city eventually closed down Novita Hotel temporarily. The administration said the decision to close the hotel was taken to ease the impending religious tensions.