The Malaysian government has won an appeal to stop the Roman Catholic Church from using "Allah" to refer to the Christian God in its weekly newspaper, in what is unlikely to be the last word on the six-year-old court battle.
The Church immediately said it would appeal against the decision in federal court, even as a Malay Muslim group called for the ban on the use of "Allah" to be expanded to church worship.
In the judgment on Monday, a bench of three appeals court judges headed by Datuk Seri Mohamed Apandi Ali unanimously decided that the government was right to ban the word from being used in the Malay edition of The Herald, reversing a High Court judgment in 2009.
Judge Mohamed Apandi told the packed courtroom that, unlike in Islam, the word "Allah" is not an integral part of faith in Christianity. "Such usage, if allowed, will inevitably cause confusion within the community," he read in a summary of the judgment.
About 60 per cent of Malaysia's 29 million population are Malay Muslims, 10 per cent are Christians and 20 per cent Buddhists. The rest practise Taoism, Hinduism, Sikhism or have no religion.
While the ban on using "Allah" is applicable only to The Herald, churches worry the government will now try to expand the ban.
Most Christian Malaysians live in Sabah and Sarawak, and use Malay-language Bibles which refer to God as "Allah".
Outside the courtroom on Monday, some 300 Muslim supporters cheered the decision. Perkasa, a Malay rights group, said churches in Sabah and Sarawak should stop using "Allah". Its vice-president Zulkifli Noordin said only Bibles without 32 words sacred to Islam - including Allah - should be circulated.
But churches in Sabah and Sarawak reiterated that they would keep using "Allah". "What are you going do about it?" Archbishop Bolly Lapok, chair of the Association of Churches in Sarawak, said in a statement.
The Christian Federation of Malaysia, which represents 90 per cent of churches in the country, warned that Monday's ruling "will only further undermine the unity of Malaysians". Islam is the official religion, but the law allows other major religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity to be practised.