01/09/2009, 00.00
MALAYSIA
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Catholic weekly the Herald resumes publishing, but cannot use the word Allah

A contradictory statement from the interior ministry permits the publication of the weekly paper in 2009, but leaves open the possibility of revisiting the case, and therefore the risk of closure. The beginning of the affair goes back to December of 2007, with the ban on the use of the word Allah. Since then, the government has repeatedly changed its position.

Kuala Lumpur (AsiaNews) - A new page in the story of the Herald, the only Catholic weekly in Malaysia, which since December of 2007 has opened a dispute with the government, which wants to ban it from using the word "Allah" to indicate "God."

On December 31, the interior ministry faxed to the newspaper's offices a letter in which it permits the paper to print, for another year, the editions in various languages, including the local Bahasa Malaysia. But the same communication contains a ban: it prohibits the use of Bahasa Malayu, the local language written in Arabic script.

The weekly will inform its readers of developments in the case with an editorial dated January 11. In it, the editorial board expresses its confusion over a communication that is, if not contradictory, at least ambiguous. The Herald, in fact, has never used Arabic characters for its publication in the Malaysian language. That would make the ban superfluous, but given recent events, the publishers are asking "what is the ministry trying to tell us?"

The dispute over the weekly, produced by the diocese of Kuala Lumpur, opened more than a year ago with the government's prohibition against using the word Allah in its publications. The use of the word "on the part of non-Muslims," the prohibition said at the time, "could increase tension and cause confusion among Muslims in the country."

Although the Herald has gone through periods of closure, it has continued publication, and in the meantime the archbishop of the capital, Murphy Pakiam, has taken the government to court in an effort to clarify the situation. The country's legal system leaves ample room for interpretation, because on the federal-civil level it is regulated by the constitution, but it also has a juridical-religious level that is supposed to apply only to Muslims, and is regulated by Koranic law.

On the basis of the ambiguity created by this twofold structure, the Islamic religious councils of seven Malaysian states and the Malaysian Chinese Muslim Association have joined the seemingly endless legal dispute.

According to the Herald, the contradictory communication from the ministry conceals the attempt to avoid a definitive resolution to the dispute. The unwillingness of the ministry to offer clarification is of concern to the publishers, who face the prospect of having to shut down. Essentially, the government has permitted it to resume publishing the edition in Bahasa Malaysia, but not to use the word Allah, reserving the right to decide on this matter in the future.

As the upcoming editorial states, the edition in Bahasa Malaysia is the most widely read, reaching 600,000 of the weekly's 800,000 readers. The local language is, in fact, the most widespread among the population that has received a basic education, the "bumiputera," a term derived from the Sanskrit, meaning "sons of the earth."

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