By Ding Jo-Ann
PETALING JAYA, 13 Jan 2010: Even though the government banned the use of "Allah" by non-Muslims in 1986, the churches refrained from court action for more than 20 years because of assurances from two prime ministers.
Council of Churches of Malaysia general secretary Rev Dr Hermen Shastri told The Nut Graph that Christian leaders were assured that "Allah" could be used, as long as it was limited to within the Christian community. This was in spite of a 1986 government gazette and 1988 state enactments that declared the words "Allah", "solat", "ka'abah" and "Baitullah" as exclusive to Islam.
"(Former Prime Minister Tun Dr) Mahathir (Mohamad's) position was if Christians use the word 'Allah' among ourselves, sell our bibles in Christian bookshops, and indicate it's a Christian publication, then that was fine," said Shastri.
"Mahathir and [Tun Abdullah Ahmad] Badawi both assured the Christian community that it would not be an issue [using 'Allah'] within our community."
Shastri said although they did not agree with the government gazette and state enactments, the church refrained from legal action in the interest of national harmony because Mahathir had said the issue was sensitive.
Shastri stressed that Christians did not use "Allah" to slight Muslims. Rather, "it's part and parcel of our spiritual and devotional life," he said.
Issue not new
Shastri also said it was unfair to describe the issue of Christians using "Allah" as new, as some have claimed.
He explained that Christians have been encountering intermittent problems for the past two decades, such as Bahasa Indonesia bibles being held at customs, or the occasional compact disc being confiscated.
The items however, were usually released on a case-by-case basis after the prime minister's intervention, he said.
Shastri said this understanding with the government broke down when Catholic paper Herald was banned from using "Allah" by the Home Ministry in their Bahasa Malaysia publication in 2007.
"The Herald had no other choice. The only way open was to take the matter to court," he said.
Challenging the state
Andrew Khoo, lawyer and legal adviser to the Anglican Bishop of West Malaysia, said the 1986 gazette should have been challenged when it was first issued.
But Khoo noted that it was usual for such issues to have been discussed privately and resolved quietly, which could also explain the delay in legal action being taken.
"Perhaps we were satisfied with the then prime minister's assurances," Khoo said.
Khoo added that in 1988, there was no desire to confront the issue by suing the government in court.
This reluctance was in the wake of Operasi Lalang in 1987, where more than 100 people from civil society, including church members, and opposition leaders were detained without trial under the Internal Security Act. The crackdown was followed by the removal of Lord President Tun Salleh Abas in 1988.
With regard to the 1988 state enactments on the use of "Allah", Khoo said no one had been prosecuted thus far.
"The enactments can't be challenged unless there's a prosecution," Khoo said.
He noted that the preamble of the Selangor enactment states that the law intended to "control and restrict the propagation of non-Islamic religious doctrines and beliefs among persons professing the religion of Islam."
"Although the section [on the use of 'Allah'] is very wide, the preamble sets the context," said Khoo, adding that the imposed condition, while not ideal, was workable.