Christians shun Malaysian gov't offer in Bible row

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - Malaysia's main Christian grouping on Wednesday rejected a government attempt to settle a protracted row over seized shipments of Malay-language Bibles, calling instead for the right to freely practice its religion.

A dispute over the use of the word "Allah" as a translation for God prompted custom authorities to hold 5,000 Indonesian-produced Bibles since 2009 and another 30,000 earlier this year. The government bans the use of "Allah" in non-Islamic texts, saying it could confuse majority Muslims or be used to convert them. The ban is being reviewed by a court.

The government last week offered to release the Bibles if the words "For Christianity" are stamped on them, scraping plans to put serial numbers and seals on each after Christians slammed the move as desecrating their holy book.

The Christian Federation of Malaysia, which represents most of the country's churches, said there has been a "systematic and progressive pushing back" of Christian religious rights.

Despite an agreement in 2005 that the government would allow Malay-language Bibles, known as the Alkitab, if they bear the phrase "A Christian Publication," the group said subsequent shipments have been held up and subjected to arbitrary conditions for release.

"We call on the government to commit itself once and for all to remove every impediment ... to the importation, publication, distribution and use of the Alkitab and to protect and defend our right to use the Alkitab," the federation said in a statement.

It said this includes revoking an order issued in the 1980s that deemed the Alkitab a threat to national security because it uses the word "Allah." The group said it is seeking a viable long-term solution with the government.

Malaysian Christians say the Arabic word "Allah" is a common reference for God that predates Islam and has been used in the Malay language for centuries by both Muslims and Christians. They say the ban is unconstitutional and threatens the religious freedom of minorities.

While the government is attempting to ease religious friction over the seizure of the Bibles, it also is seeking to assure Muslims that their interests will not be undermined in the ongoing court case over whether non-Muslims have the right to use "Allah."

The government is appealing a December 2009 court ruling that religious minorities — mostly Christians, Buddhists and Hindus — have the right to use "Allah." The verdict caused a brief surge in tensions last year, when 11 churches were attacked amid anger among some Muslims.