Malaysian church, weekly newspaper sue government for banning use of word 'Allah'

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - A Malaysian church and a Christian weekly newspaper are suing the government for banning them from using the word "Allah," alleging that the prohibition is unconstitutional and against freedom of religion.

The move follows the government's declaration that "Allah" _ which means God in the Malay language _ refers to the Muslim God and can only be used by Muslims.

These are the first legal challenges against the mainly Muslim government's decision, and they come amid minority groups' increasing concerns that their rights are being trampled upon.

The Herald, the newspaper of Malaysia's Catholic Church, filed suit in early December after it was warned repeatedly that its permit may be revoked if it refuses to drop the use of "Allah" in its Malay-language section, editor Rev. Lawrence Andrew said Friday.

"We are of the view that we have the right to use the word 'Allah,'" he said in a statement to The Associated Press.

The Sabah Evangelical Church of Borneo also took legal action this month after authorities banned the import of Christian books containing the word "Allah," the church's lawyer, Lim Heng Seng, said.

"The decision to declare 'Allah' as only for Muslims, categorizing this as a security issue, and banning books with the word 'Allah,' is unlawful," Lim told the AP.

Both organizations named the internal security minister, a post held by Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, as a co-defendant.

Ministry officials couldn't be reached immediately for comment.

Religious issues are extremely sensitive in Malaysia, where about 60 percent of the 27 million people are Malay Muslims. Ethnic Chinese, who are Christians and Buddhists, account for 25 percent of the population, while mostly Hindu Indians are 10 percent.

Minorities often complain they don't have full freedom of religion even though the Constitution guarantees everybody the right to worship.

In affidavit made available to the AP, the Sabah church pastor, Jerry Dusing, said customs officials confiscated three boxes of children's education material from a church member who was transiting at the Kuala Lumpur airport in August.

Dusing said he was told the publications were banned because they contained the word "Allah," which the government feels could raise confusion and controversy among Muslims. The government classified the matter as a security issue, he said.

Dusing said Christians in Sabah on Borneo island have used the word "Allah" for generations when they worship in the Malay language, and the word appears in their Malay Bible.

"The Christian usage of 'Allah' predates Islam. 'Allah' is the name of God in the old Arabic Bible as well as in the modern Arabic Bible," he said, adding that "Allah" was widely used by Christians in Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Indonesia and other parts of the world without problem.

The Herald officials told the AP that the government informed them in a letter last week that their Malay-language section would be banned from January when its annual permit is renewed.

The Herald has a circulation of 12,000 copies and publishes reports in four languages _ English, Malay, Mandarin and Tamil.