KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) - Malaysia's highest court on Monday dismissed a bid by Christians for the right to use the word "Allah", ending a years-long legal battle that has caused religious tensions in the Muslim-majority country.
The Catholic Church had been seeking to reverse a government ban on it referring to God by the Arabic word "Allah" in the local Malay-language edition of its Herald newspaper.
But a seven-judge panel in the administrative capital Putrajaya ruled a lower court decision siding with the government stood.
"It (the Court of Appeal) applied the correct test, and it is not open for us to interfere," chief justice Arifin Zakaria said.
"By a majority of four to three, the leave application is dismissed."
Mr S. Selvarajah, one of the church's lawyers, said his team would explore further ways to challenge the ban. "It's a blanket ban. Non-Muslims cannot use the word. It has a major impact," he told AFP.
The case has dragged on for years, causing anger among Muslims, who say Christians are overstepping religious boundaries, and concern among Christians who feel their rights are under threat.
The Herald editor Father Lawrence Andrew said the judgement "didn't touch on the fundamental rights of minorities".
"We are greatly disappointed by this judgment," he said.
Outside the court, which was cordoned off, about a hundred Muslim activists cheered the news of the verdict.
Earlier, they had shouted "Allahu Akbar" or "God is great" and waved banners that read "Uniting to defend the name of Allah".
"I'm very pleased and happy that we have won the case. I hope the issue will be put to rest," Mr Ibrahim Ali, head of Muslim rights group Perkasa, told AFP.
"We must defend 'Allah' because this is our religious obligation. I hope other communities, including Christians, understand this."
The dispute first erupted in 2007 when the Home Ministry threatened to revoke the publishing permit of the Herald for using the Arabic word in its Malay-language edition.
The church launched a court case to challenge the directive, arguing "Allah" had been used for centuries in Malay-language Bibles and other literature to refer to "God" outside of Islam.
But authorities say using "Allah" in non-Muslim literature could confuse Muslims and entice them to convert, a crime in Malaysia.
An appeals court last October reinstated the ban, overturning a lower court's 2009 ruling in favour of the church that had led to a spate of attacks on houses of worship.
Two petrol bombs were thrown at a Malaysian church in January, causing minor damage but triggering memories of the earlier attacks on mostly churches.
Islamic authorities also seized hundreds of Bibles, which contained the word "Allah", from a Christian group in January.
Malaysia has largely avoided overt religious conflict in recent decades, but minorities have increasingly complained of their rights being curtailed amid what many see as Islamisation.
About 2.6 million people among the South-east Asian nation's 28 million people are Christians, who come from mostly ethnic Chinese, Indian or indigenous backgrounds, while 60 per cent are Muslim ethnic Malay.