Kuala Lumpur — The country’s umbrella body for evangelical churches issued an advisory last night to leaders of its member churches to deny entry to any state Islamic authority attempting to raid or enter a church or premises of a Christian organisation.
The unprecedented advisory was made to nearly 2,500 evangelical churches after the Selanor Islamic authority (Jais) on Thursday seized 321 Bibles from a Christian group because they used the word Allah to refer to God.
Lawyers have called the raid unconstitutional as state Islamic enactments do not cover non-Muslims unless there is evidence of attempts to propagate to Muslims, while critics and observers have said the raid signals growing intolerance that has already inflamed ethnic and religious tension.
Eugene Yapp the secretary-general of the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship (NECF) representing mainly churches not affiliated with the established Catholic and Protestant churches, said Muslim religious authorities had no jurisdiction with respect to non-Muslims.
“Christians therefore have the right to deny entry to any religious department officer who requests entry into a meeting at a house, church premise, or any private property used for Christian worship and activities.
“Should Jais officers or any religious officers accompanied by the police insist on entering your premises, non-Muslims must ensure their identification as authorized officers; and they produce a search warrant before obliging entry into your premises for a search. The validity of their actions can subsequently be challenged through legal recourse,” said Yapp in the advisory.
On Thursday the Selangor religious authorities carried out a raid on the Bible Society of Malaysia (BSM), seizing copies of both the Malay-language and Iban bibles that contain the word “Allah”, while two BSM officials were also held by police.
Separately, a coalition of Malay-Muslim groups also announced that a rally will be held at the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes in Klang this Sunday morning over the insistence of Christians in the state to use the word ‘Allah’.
Tensions flared after Jais announced plans to clamp down on churches in the state that used the Arabic word in their worship, even as the so-called “Allah” row remains unresolved four years after it shocked the nation and led to the worst religious strife in the country’s history.
The Court of Appeal in October ruled that the Arabic word was exclusive to Muslims, most of whom are ethnic Malays,.
That ruling overturned a court decision that allowed a Roman Catholic newspaper printed in Malay, the country’s national language, to use Allah.
The change has heightened concern that religious authorities, which issue rulings for Muslims and operate alongside civil courts, now have more legal muscle.
The NECF advisory pointed out that church leaders should subsequently allow a raid without a warrant if forced entry is used.
“If there is no warrant and forced entry is used, allow this to proceed with consideration for the personal safety of your staff/church members present. But do video record the entry and keep the recording as evidence.”
NECF member churches were also advised to stay calm in the event of any protest by Muslim groups, as well as record such demonstrations.
Yesterday the Christian Federation of Malaysia (CFM), which represents virtually all of the churches nationwide, also dubbed the controversial enforcement action by Jais as abusive and an act of discrimination against Christians.
“This unconscionable conduct on the part of Jais and the federal police is not just an authoritarian abuse of power and an act of harassment against Christians in Malaysia,” it said.
Temperatures have risen of late over the so-called “Allah” row that remains unresolved four years after it shocked the nation and led to the worst religious strife in the country’s history.
The ongoing legal dispute between the government and the Catholic Church over its right to print the word “Allah” in the Herald’s Bahasa Malaysia section is still pending before the Federal Court, which is set to hear arguments from both sides on February 24 before deciding on whether it will hear an appeal by the Catholic Church.
Christians make up about 10 per cent of the Malaysian population, or 2.6 million. Almost two-thirds of them are Bumiputera and are largely based in Sabah and Sarawak, where they routinely use Bahasa Malaysia and indigenous languages in their religious practices, including describing God as “Allah” in their prayers and holy book.