Malaysia Christians Welcome Reversal of Bible Ban

An outcry from Malaysian Christians has prompted the government of the predominantly Muslim country to reverse its ban on Bibles published in the language of an indigenous ethnic group.

The decision was announced by acting Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who said banning the Iban-language Bible would spark anger in the Christian community.

The edition was banned last month, 15 years after it was first published to serve the needs of a community of erstwhile headhunters on Borneo island, many of whom have converted from animism to Christianity.

The decision to ban the Iban Bible, plus 34 other religious books considered "detrimental to public peace," was attributed to officials at the Home Ministry, acting on the advice of the Department of Islamic Development.

The department's main gripe was that the Iban translation of the Bible uses the term "Allah" for God.

The contention was that this could confuse any Muslim picking up the Iban Bible.

Among the other banned books were several Christian books by well-known Western evangelical authors, translated into the Malaysian and Indonesian national languages, and also using the word "Allah" for God.

Other books were on Islamic subjects, but not deemed orthodox.

Announcing the reversal of the ban, Abdullah said the Department of Islamic Development had felt use of the word "Allah" was inappropriate and that the Iban Bible therefore breached official guidelines for non-Islamic religious books.

He said his subsequent consultation with church leaders revealed that "the word had been used by the community as a reference to God for a very long time."

It was therefore not necessary to ban the Bible, Abdullah said, but added that it was important to ensure that religious books available in Malaysia did "not touch on the sensitivity of other religions, especially Islam."

About 60 percent of Malaysia's 23 million people are Muslims, and less than 10 percent are Christians.

About half of the 400,000 Iban, who live in Malaysia's Sarawak province on Borneo island, are Christians.

The Bible Society of Malaysia has since 1988 published the entire Bible in the Iban tongue. It also prints Bibles in Bahasa Malaysia, English, Chinese, and two other minor languages.

The decision to ban the Iban edition drew widespread condemnation, lead to heated debate on Malaysian online news portals, and prompted the launch of a petition that was signed by 1,400 people within a week.

Judging from comments on online forums, some Malaysians clearly felt the issue had less to do with semantics than with politicians pandering to their ethnic constituents ahead of elections later this year.

Church leaders, both Iban and others, appealed for it to be lifted.

'Violated constitution'

Ong Kian Ming, the Malaysian who organized the petition and conveyed it to the authorities via "informal channels," is a Christian and senior policy analyst with an independent think tank called the Socio-Economic Development and Research (Sedar) Institute.

He said Thursday he had taken the action because the Bible ban clearly violated the article in the federal constitution guaranteeing religious freedom for all Malaysians.

Ong attributed the ban to overzealous bureaucrats who wanted to monopolize the word "Allah" for Malaysian Muslims, "without realizing that Arab speaking Christians use the word Allah to address their God."

Theologians say Christians in the Arab world used the word "Allah" for God before the founding of Islam in the seventh century, and still do today, even though Muslims and Christians have substantially different conceptions of "God."

Ong welcomed the announcement that the ban was to be lifted, saying it was a positive sign that religious freedom would be upheld when Abdullah becomes premier. Veteran Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is retiring in October.

"It assuages some of the fears many Christians here in Malaysia here have in regards to the increase of religious intolerance," Ong said.

To prevent a recurrence, Ong said the Sedar Institute recommended the establishment of an inter-religious council under the prime minister's department, comprising representatives of all religions and designed to discuss government decisions affecting all religions.

He also questioned the decision to leave the ban on the other books in place.

'Exact science'

According to Dr. Victor Wong of the Bible Society, there are no plans at present to change any words in future editions of the Iban Bible.

The matter may be discussed in some future forum, he said from Kuala Lumpur Thursday, but there could be "theological implications" to changing words.

"Bible translation is quite an exact science," he said.

Asked whether the Iban language had another word that could be used for "God," Wong explained that as a formerly animist tribe, the Iban had "all sorts of gods" and care had to be taken not to cause confusion through bad translation.

Wong said there had been an upside to the controversy, as it focused attention on the Iban Christians and an edition of the Bible that many Malaysians had not known existed before now.

It had also resulted in "a very good show of solidarity" among Christians in Malaysia.

"The important thing, though, is that the Iban come to know God, through having the Bible in their own language."

Wong described the Iban as a tribe renowned in the past for fierceness in battle, but which at the same time was also fearful because of the many gods it acknowledged.

He knew of cases where an Iban would refuse to leave the house after hearing the cry of a bird, which was interpreted as a bad omen.

Christianity had helped the Iban to leave behind this fearful existence, Wong said.

"Their lives were changed because of the word of God."