Catholic Church takes Allah issue to apex court

Today, Malaysia's apex court will hear an application by the Catholic Church on a case linked to the Allah issue, the culmination of a long-drawn-out case that has stoked tensions between Muslims and Christians in the country.

The Church is asking the Federal Court for permission to appeal against an October decision by the Court of Appeal that prohibited the Catholic weekly newsletter Herald from using the word "Allah".

If the court denies the application, it will leave the Church with no further legal avenue in Malaysia to challenge what it says is an infringement of religious freedom.

If the highest court agrees to hear the appeal, it will set a date to do so - a decision that could anger many Muslims.

Arrayed against the Church's application are Malaysia's government, Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, six state Islamic councils and the Malaysian Chinese Muslim Association.

"The repercussions of the Court of Appeal decision will be far-reaching for the Christian community," Mr Annou Xavier, a lawyer close to the case, told The Straits Times yesterday.

Large crowds of Muslims have gathered at the court complex in Putrajaya each time cases linked to the Allah issue came up in the last few years.

Along with the appeal, the Catholic Church is raising 26 questions of law on constitutional issues, including the Home Minister's powers to ban a Christian publication and the court's powers to decide on religion.

The controversy over whether Christians can use the word "Allah" to refer to their God has taken several legal twists and turns.

In December 2009, the High Court ruled that "Allah" could be used in the Malay-language section of the Herald publication, which is only circulated to its churches by subscription.

In October last year, the Court of Appeal overturned that decision.

The three-person Bench at the appeals court said using the word Allah could cause confusion in Muslim-majority Malaysia and said it was not an integral part of the Christian faith.

The Christian community argued that the decision affected hundreds of thousands of Malay-speaking Christians in Malaysia, particularly in Sabah and Sarawak, where native communities have worshipped in Malay with local-language Bibles for hundreds of years.

On the other side are a section of Muslims who suspect that the Church wants to be able to use the word Allah in Peninsular Malaysia as a first step to convert Malay-Muslims to Christianity.

Several churches and mosques have been attacked or vandalised since the Allah case first went to court at the end of 2009.

A church in Selangor was badly damaged by fire in an attack in 2010.

The case in court today is not the only one linked to the Allah issue this week.

A court decision was scheduled to be heard yesterday on a Sabah church's application to review the government's move in 2007 to seize its Sunday school books from Indonesia. But the case was postponed.

And tomorrow, a woman from Sarawak is to attend court to challenge the seizure of CDs that she was carrying from Indonesia in 2008 that had the word Allah on them.

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