KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 6 — Church leaders here were forced again to deny claims that the fight by Christians to use the word “Allah” is part of a covert strategy to convert Muslims here, an accusation that has intensified ahead of next Tuesday’s Court of Appeal hearing.
Catholic priest Father Lawrence Andrew rejected the idea of a Christian conspiracy to convert non-Christians, even reminding that many prominent leaders in the country had gone through the Catholic schools system without switching their religion.
“I would only comment on this idea of conspiring to convert people. It’s not true, many of the luminaries of the country, like Najib, Gani Patail, Rafidah, DPM have studied in Catholic schools, and they have not become Catholics and Christians,” the editor of the Catholic Church’s weekly Herald said when contacted today.
Lawrence was referring to Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, the Attorney-General Tan Sri Abdul Gani Patail, former minister Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz and the Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin.
He said that claims that Muslims would be easily confused amounted to an “insult”, saying that the Muslim community is “intelligent”.
“Don’t insult them by saying that they get easily confused. They are intelligent, they are not so easily confused,” he said.
“I’m happy that the judge can say that in the same manner. That’s why she was able to lift the ban of Irshad Manji’s book in BM,” he said, referring to Justice Datuk Zaleha Yusof.
He was referring to High Court’s decision yesterday to overturn the government’s ban on the Bahasa Malaysia translation of the Canadian author’s book “Allah, Liberty and Love”, where Zaleha had reportedly questioned if the ban meant that only Malay-speaking Muslims would be confused by the book.
Yesterday, the International Muslim Consumer Association (IMCA) claimed that Malaysian Christians are insisting on using the word “Allah” to make Christianity more “palatable” to Malay Muslims and thus convert them.
But Rev Hermen Shastri, the secretary-general of the Council of Churches Malaysia (CCM), disagreed with the claim, pointing out that the word had been used by Malay-speaking Christians in east Malaysia in the practice of their religion.
“It is not true. The word has been used from the early times when the Bible was translated into Malay. And Christians in Sabah and Sarawak have been using the word for a long, long time,” he told The Malay Mail Online when contacted today.
“We have been using it all the time, why is it suddenly an issue?
“We are using it for our own community, it’s not used to convert Muslims,” he said, referring to the Christians in east Malaysia.
According to a 2010 census, Muslims are Malaysia’s largest religious group, followed by Buddhists. Christians are the third-largest at 2.6 million, which comes up to about 10 per cent of the entire Malaysian population.
Bumiputera Christians, who form about 64 per cent or close to two-third of the Christian community in Malaysia, have prayed and spoken in the national language and their native tongues for centuries.
The Christian Federation of Malaysia (CFM), an umbrella body of all the Protestant and Catholic churches in the country, had this May came out with a fact-sheet, stating that the word “Allah” has been used by the Malay-speaking Christians for centuries, citing Malay translations of the bible that existed even before the founding of Malaysia.
Lawrence said that different groups will interpret a word like “Allah” differently, pointing out that the Bahasa Malaysia language is the country’s official language to be shared by all citizens.
“First of all, we have a language that is common to all, the language is not exclusive to somebody. It is our national language,” he said.
“Even the word ‘God’ in English, a Muslim will understand it differently, a Christian will understand it differently, a Hindu will understand it differently ... The concept you put to the word, it varies from people to people,” he added.
Lawrence observed that the dispute over the word “Allah” was a problem unique to Malaysia, pointing out that other countries like Muslim-dominant neighbour Indonesia did not face the same problem.
“We have to be aware that in Indonesia, this is not a problem. In other parts of the world, in the Middle East, it’s not a problem. It’s only a problem in Malaysia.”
Some Muslims have been insisting that the Christians use the word “Tuhan” (Lord) to replace the word “Allah” (God), but the Christian community had explained that the two words carry different meanings and would make their religious texts incoherent.
The “Allah” row erupted in 2008 when the Home Ministry threatened to revoke the Herald’s newspaper permit for its reference to God as “Allah”, prompting the Catholic Church to sue the government for violating its constitutional rights.
Christians subsequently argued that the word predates Islam and that their right to use “Allah” in a non-Muslim context was affirmed by the government’s own 10-point solution issued in 2011.
The 2009 High Court decision upholding the Catholic Church’s constitutional right to use the word “Allah” had shocked many Muslims that consider the word to only refer to the Islamic God.
The local Catholic Church however failed in August to strike out Putrajaya’s appeal against the 2009 landmark High Court ruling that upheld Christians’ right to refer to God as “Allah”.
With the decision last month, the church will have to duke it out in the courtroom with Putrajaya next Tuesday, prolonging the over four-year-long legal tussle over the Arabic word.