Kuala Lumpur (AsiaNews) - The raid in the State of Selangor that led to the seizure of hundreds of Bibles and the arrest of two Christian leaders, later released on bail, is "deeply wrong and unlawful". Local government officials "have no authority to enter a Christian centre" and carry out acts that are visibly contrary to the constitution of Malaysia, said Fr Lawrence Andrew, editor of the Catholic weekly Herald, as he reacted to further abuses against the religious minority, already struggling in a controversial court case involving the use of the word "Allah" in reference to the Christian God.
Speaking to AsiaNews, the priest noted the constitution says that every religious group is "free to practice its religion and manage its own affairs" without outside "interference", as was the case yesterday. Indeed, the controversy over 'Allah' is a source of problems for the nation.
Yesterday, Malaysian authorities seized 321 Bibles from the Bible Society of Malaysia (BSM) in Selangor, because they used the word Allah for the Christian God.
The raid is a direct result of a court decision last October to give Muslims "exclusive" use of the word use 'Allah' and ban its use by Christians. Most Muslims are ethnic Malay.
The dispute is still before the Federal Court, and a new hearing is scheduled for 24 February when judges will have to decide whether to allow the Catholic Church to appeal.
Defence Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein said that the controversy and court cases should end for the greater good of the country. In his view, Christian objection to the court's decision is sowing "hatred and division" and could cause "further clashes." Islamist leaders agree with the minister and have called on Christians to respect his request; otherwise things could get out of hand.
United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) leaders are also threatening to carry out widespread protests in all the churches of the State during Sunday services if "the unlawful use" of the word Allah continues.
Anonymous sources with great knowledge of local politics told AsiaNews that political interests might be behind the hard-line stance taken by the prime minister and the government, such as winning the support of extremist voters following unpopular moves like lower subsidies and higher petrol, electricity and sugar prices.
"What is happening today already happened in 2010, when churches and Christian places of worship came under violent attacks," the source said. "Even then, UMNO was behind the violence as a way to influence the court decision. They are causing unrest to show that it is necessary to end the dispute and put everything to rest by denying Catholics the right to appeal." Sadly, in Malaysia, "Religious freedom is being gradually restricted," he said.
The recent anti-Christian raid follows a controversial decision by the Court of Appeal in October banning the Catholic weekly Herald from using the word "Allah" for the Christian God.
Following the ruling, some officials at the Ministry of Interior seized 2,000 copies of the magazine published by the Archdiocese at Kuala Lumpur's Kota Kinabalu Airport in, Sabah state, justifying the action by the need to check whether the publication complied with the court order against "unlawful uses of the word Allah".
The controversy broke out initially in 2008, when the government threatened to revoke the weekly's permission to publish. The paper is the country's main Catholic publication. In response, Church leaders sued the government for breaching constitutional rights.
In 2009, the High Court ruled in favour of Catholics. The judgment however sent shockwaves among Muslims, angering many who consider the word 'llah' exclusively Islamic. A wave of violence swept the country, with churches and other Christian places of worship targeted. To stem extremism, the government decided to appeal.
In Malaysia, a mostly Muslim nation (60 per cent) of more than 28 million, Christians are the third largest religious group after Buddhists with more than 2.6 million members.
A Latin-Malay dictionary published 400 year ago shows that 'Allah' was used in the Bible from the start to refer to God in the local language.