Malaysia must end ban on Christians saying ‘Allah’

Malaysia’s ban on Christians using the word “Allah” to refer to God is an abuse against free speech and must be scrapped, Amnesty International said after the country’s highest court upheld the controversial government ban.

“This ban violates the right to freedom of expression. The idea that non-Muslims could face prosecution for using a particular word is deeply disturbing,” said Amnesty International’s Malaysia researcher, Hazel Galang-Folli.

“The ban is not just repressive, it is also dangerous. It risks further inflaming religious tensions in Malaysia by denying its people the right to freedom of religion.” 

The Malaysian government introduced the ban in 2007 after the word “Allah” was used in a Malay-language edition of the Catholic Church’s newspaper, the Herald.

The Church appealed against the ban, arguing that “Allah” had been used to refer to the Christian God for centuries in Malay-language Bibles and other non-Muslim literature.

A court ruled in the Church’s favour in 2009, but that judgment was later overturned by Malaysia’s Court of Appeal. 

Today’s Federal Court verdict would appear to have ended the legal battle, although Malaysian media reported that the Church could ask for the decision to be reviewed.

Muslims make up almost two-thirds of Malaysia’s population of around 30 million, but there are also more than two million Christians in the country plus substantial numbers belonging to other faiths.

“The Malaysian authorities must immediately revoke this ban, which puts non-Muslim Malaysian speakers or writers at risk of arrest for simply exercising their right to free speech,” said Hazel Galang-Folli.

“Today’s ruling marks yet another blow to free speech in Malaysia, where government authorities continue to arrest and detain government critics, silence dissenting voices in the media and attempt to ban human rights groups from speaking out.”

The long-running dispute over the ban on saying “Allah” has stirred up religious friction in Malaysia. Three churches in Kuala Lumpur were firebombed after a court ruled in the Catholic Church’s favour in 2009, while the divisive ban has also sparked attacks on mosques.

Earlier this year, Malaysian authorities seized hundreds of Malay-language Bibles containing the word Allah from a Christian group.