Malaysia's High Court rules Christians can use word 'Allah' in publications

Ms Jill Ireland's lawyers Lim Heng Seng (left) and Annou Xavier leaving the Kuala Lumpur Court Complex after the decision by the High Court. PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

KUALA LUMPUR - After a legal battle that lasted more than a decade, the Malaysian High Court on Wednesday (March 10) granted a Malaysian Christian the right to use the word "Allah" in her religious practice.

The ruling quashed a three-decade government ban on Christians using the word "Allah" in their religious publications.

The court also allowed three words to be used in Christian publications for educational purposes: Kaabah (Islam's holiest shrine in Mecca), Baitullah (House of God), and solat (prayer).

High Court Justice Nor Bee Ariffin affirmed the constitutional right of Ms Jill Ireland Lawrence Bill, a Sarawakian Christian, to use the word "Allah" for her religious practice, some 13 years after the latter first filed a legal challenge on the matter.

Ms Bill's legal challenge started shortly after the government seized eight educational compact discs from her containing the word "Allah" at an airport in 2008, upon her return from Indonesia.

Following years of legal battle, Malaysia's courts declared in 2014 that the seizure was unlawful, and the CDs, which were for Ms Bill's personal use, were returned to her in 2015, seven years after the seizure.

However, the previous court cases did not make a ruling on the constitutional points raised by Ms Bill - namely her right to use the word "Allah" for religious purposes.

Datuk Nor Bee heard the constitutional points raised in the case more than three years ago, in November 2017.

But the judge's decision on the matter, initially scheduled to be delivered in 2018, has been delayed dozens of times as the parties attempted an out-of-court settlement before coronavirus-induced lockdown kicked in last year.

"She (Ms Bill) has been deprived and there is no assurance that it won't happen again," Justice Nor Bee ruled on Wednesday.

The court's decision also effectively quashed a 35-year-old circular by Malaysia's Home Ministry, which bans the use of the word "Allah" in Christian publications.

In 1986, the Home Ministry banned the use of Allah in Christian publications, citing a threat to public order.

But Datuk Nor Bee on Wednesday said that the ministry had exceeded its powers with the order, and said such a prohibition was against the constitution.

"There is no such power to restrict religious freedom under Article 11. Religious freedom is absolutely protected even in times of threat to public order," the judge, who has been elevated to the Court of Appeal since she heard the case, said.

Ms Bill had argued her case based on freedom of religion and equality before the law, provisions granted under the federal constitution.

Ms Bill's legal challenge over a decade ago also coincided in another court case involving the use of the word "Allah", after a Catholic weekly The Herald was banned by the Home Ministry from using the word Allah.

The Herald however was unsuccessful in its legal challenge, with courts in 2013 backing the government's ban on the use of Allah in publications.

At the height of both trials, right-wing groups in Malaysia protested against the rights of non-Muslims using the word "Allah". Amid controversy over the issue in 2010, 11 churches and five mosques were firebombed or vandalised.

Malaysian Christians have argued that they have used the word "Allah", to denote God, for centuries in their own religious practice. Christians make up a substantial population of the two Malaysian Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak, where congregations use the Malay language in their church activities and publications.

However, some Muslim leaders have argued that allowing Christians to use the word "Allah" could lead to public unrest and confusion. The word Allah, they say, is largely perceived by Malaysia's Muslim community to exclusively refer to the Islamic God.

Christianity is the third largest religion in Malaysia, and is practised by 13 per cent of Malaysia's population - a majority of them residing in the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak. Malaysia's Muslims comprise some 60 per cent of the 32 million population.

There is currently another ongoing legal challenge on the Allah ban, by Sidang Injil Borneo (Borneo Evangelical Church).

It remains to be seen if the church's legal challenge would continue after the ban was quashed by the court on Wednesday.

The government has not indicated if it will appeal against the ruling.

In a report in The Star, senior federal counsel Shamsul Bolhassan said that the four words can be used by Christians as ruled by the court, provided they carry a disclaimer that they are intended only for Christians and also has a cross symbol.

Court cases over Malaysia's 'Allah' issue

In 1986, the Home Ministry banned the use of the word "Allah" - largely perceived in Malaysia's Muslim community to denote the Islamic God - in Christian publications, citing threats to public order.

Malaysian Christians on their part have said that they have used "Allah" in their own religious practice for hundreds of years.

The government's order has led to seizures of several Christian publications, and three court challenges.

The Herald vs Home Ministry

The challenge regarding the right of Christians to use "Allah" in their publications occurred after Catholic weekly The Herald was banned by the government from using it.

The Herald won the challenge at the High Court in 2009, leading to protests among right-wing groups.

The Court of Appeal overturned the decision and backed the ban in 2013.

The apex Federal Court upheld the Court of Appeal's decision.

Jill Ireland vs Home Ministry

A Sarawakian Christian, Jill Ireland Lawrence Bill, had several education CDs brought from Indonesia seized from her in 2008, for containing the word "Allah".

She won a court challenge to declare the seizure unlawful, and had the confiscated items returned to her in 2015.

But the constitutional points were never answered and the High Court on Wednesday (March 10) affirmed her constitutional right to use "Allah" for religious purposes.

Sidang Injil Borneo vs Home Ministry

In 2007, the Home Ministry seized Christian religious books containing the word "Allah".

SIB, a church in Borneo, filed a judicial review application on the church's right to use the word in their religious publications.

However, 13 years on and after numerous delays, the merits of the case are yet to be heard.

The church is currently appealing to the Federal Court to obtain Home Ministry documents that resulted in the Allah ban as part of its judicial review bid.

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