03/05/2014, 00.00
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Kuala Lumpur: court adjourns trial on the disputed use of the word Allah

The Federal Court heard the parties' arguments but adjourned the case "to a later date." For the first time, a panel of seven judges will settle a civil matter. Outside the courthouse, hundreds of Muslim protesters tried to put pressure on the judges. Herald editor says Christians fast and pray for a favourable ruling.

Kuala Lumpur (AsiaNews) - Hundreds of Muslims demonstrated outside the Federal Court in Kuala Lumpur, where the first session in the appeal case filed by Catholics was heard today on whether to ban the use of the word Allah for the Christian God.

A panel of seven judges - something unique in the history of Malaysia for a civil case - heard the arguments from both parties, and adjourned the case to "a later date."

At present, it is not possible to know whether the court will hear the Catholic petition for a retrial, or uphold the lower court's decision of banning the use of Allah.

The lawyer representing the Catholic case, Cyrus Das, said he was "quite confident" because the issue is "of great public importance" and the Church has a new opportunity to plead its case in court.

In an attempt to put pressure on judges examining the case, at least 500 people brandished placards outside the courthouse, shouting slogans like 'Allahu Akbar' (God is great) and 'Allah cannot be used by outsiders or Christians'.

The Catholic Church filed a case against the appeal court whose ruling in October last year coincided with government wishes and banned non-Muslims from using the word Allah so as "not to cause confusion." The ban singles out the Catholic weekly Herald.

For Church leaders (and activist movements), the reason given is preposterous, a blatant violation of religious freedom in a multi-cultural nation that, for some time, has experienced rising sectarian tensions.

Herald editor Fr Andrew Lawrence said that today, in conjunction with Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, Christians across the country have been praying and fasting "for a favourable verdict."

At the same time, a small group of people rallied outside the Bangsar shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur, handing out flowers and balloons to express solidarity with Christians.

The activists held up banners, saying that "God is one", " We are brothers and sisters" and "We all answer to Allah."

The group included Marina Mahathir, an activist and daughter of Malaysian's fourth prime minister Mahathir bin Mohamad. Calling for peace and harmony, she said, "We are tired of all this ugliness and this climate of hate".

Overturning a 2009 court decision, an appeal court last October ordered the Herald to stop using the word Allah for the Christian God. Paper editor Fr Lawrence Andrew filed an appeal to defend the rights of the minority, whilst continuing to promote harmony and peaceful coexistence among the country's various groups. He repeatedly stressed that the issue is not religious, but a simple matter of law.

However, this did not stop attacks and violence against Christians, including the desecration of some tombstones in a cemetery and Molotov cocktails thrown at a church.

In Malaysia, a nation of more than 28 million people, mostly Muslims (60 per cent), Christians are the third largest religious group (after Buddhists) with more than 2.6 million members.

A Latin-Malay dictionary published 400 years ago shows that the word Allah was already in use to describe the Biblical God in the local language.

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