Kuala Lumpur (AsiaNews) - The Kuala Lumpur High Court today rejected the appeal lodged by Malaysian Catholics about their right to use the word Allah in reference to the Christian God.
Since it broke out, the affair has caused divisions and bitterness in the predominantly Muslim nation, giving rise to violence, abuse and attacks against the Christian minority.
The local Catholic Church took the case to court, confident that justice would be served and that its traditional right rooted in centuries of practice would be recognised.
The battle began in 2007 and continued with different outcomes (in 2009 the Supreme Court backed Christians) as rulings were swayed by the influence of Islamist groups exerting pressure on judges to have the rights of Christians denied.
The seven-member jury ruled four to three to dismiss the appeal filed by Christians. Outside the courthouse, Islamists welcomed the verdict, shouting "Allahu Akbar" (God is greatest) several times.
In contrast, local Catholic leaders expressed their disappointment, which does not mean they are giving up the battle. Father Lawrence Andrew, priest and editor of The Herald, a Catholic weekly, said he was "very saddened" by a ruling that does not respect "the fundamental rights of minorities."
S Selvarajah, one of the lawyer representing the Catholic side, challenged the ruling on its merit, saying that he would evaluate additional opportunities available to the Christian community to secure for themselves a right guaranteed, at least in theory, by the Constitution.
The controversy over the use of the word Allah by The Herald, and Christians in general, has led to anti-Christian attacks, including church burning, the desecration of Christian graves and the seizure of 300 Bibles in January.
The Court of Appeal ruling last October triggered these events. Lawyers for the Catholic side presented (in vain) a 26-point appeal incorporating arguments taken from the constitution and administrative law - it also challenged the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Interior to decide on the use of a theological term.
As Christians have done for ages, most religious believers, whatever their faith, use the name Allah in Malay for God.
The word itself is borrowed from Arabic and is part of everyday language, but Malaysian authorities claim that having Catholics use the word would sow confusion among Muslims and result in some cases in conversion to Christianity.
In Malaysia, a mostly Muslim (60 per cent) nation of more than 28 million people, Christians are the third largest religious group (after Buddhists) with more than 2.6 million members. The publication of a Latin-Malay 400 year ago shows that the term Allah was already in use to describe God in the Bible in the local language.