Malaysian Christians warn that Allah ban hurts country's moderate Muslim image

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - A Malaysian Christian group said Monday that a government ban on non-Muslims using the word "Allah" was an affront to religious freedom and could hurt the country's image as a moderate Islamic nation.

Government officials defended the ban, which has existed for nearly 20 years but was never fully enforced until a recent controversy over the use of the word "Allah" by a Christian newspaper and church.

The Cabinet last week declared it off-limits to non-Muslims. Malaysia's official religion is Islam, and Muslim Malays make up about 60 percent of the population. Ethnic Chinese _ mostly Christians and Buddhists _ make up a quarter of the population, and mostly Hindu Indians just under 10 percent.

The Christian Federation of Malaysia expressed "deep disappointment and regret" over the Cabinet's stance on "Allah" _ an Arabic word used as a synonym for "God" in the national language, Malay.

The federation's executive secretary, the Rev. Hermen Shastri, said the word existed before Islam and it was wrong to prohibit Christians from using it in private worship and internal publications.

"We have used the word 'Allah' and we will continue to use it because it is our religious right," he said. "We don't preach to Muslims, so why should Muslims be worried about this?"

The restriction will put the country "in a bad light in the international community," he said.

Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak defended the action, saying he did not think it was a blow to tolerance among Malaysia's various religions and ethnic groups.

"Different countries have different practices," he said.

Officials have said using "Allah" in Christian literature could confuse the country's Muslims _ who are mostly ethnic Malays and make up 60 percent of Malaysia's 27 million people _ and draw them to Christianity.

Shastri called the government's argument "an insult to the intelligence of Muslims."

The government has not specified a penalty for non-Muslims using "Allah" in religious ceremonies, but it can ban publications that use the word.

A Malaysian church and Christian weekly newspaper launched a court action last month to challenge the ban.