10/30/2013, 00.00
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Distribution of Catholic weekly in Sabah stopped to see if it used banned word 'Allah'

Held up at Kota Kinabalu Airport, the Herald's 2,000 copies are eventually released after the intervention of the Archdiocese of Kuala Lumpur and a Catholic politician. In doing this, the Home Ministry prevented the weekly from being distributed for Sunday Mass. Activists criticise the decision as a violation of religious freedom.

Kuala Lumpur (AsiaNews/EDA) - A controversial ruling by the Court of Appeal is now being felt. In view of the court's decision banning the use of 'Allah' as the word for the Christian God, Malaysia's Home Ministry seized, 2,000 copies of the Herald, at Kota Kinabalu Airport, Sabah State. The Catholic weekly is published by the Archdiocese of Kuala Lumpur.

Ministry officials said that the court's ruling meant that they have to verify pre-emptively whether the weekly complied with its order or used "unlawfully the word Allah".

In an official statement on its Facebook page announcing the action, the Home Ministry noted that "the inspection found no unlawful use" of the word "in the publication." For this reason, it released the copies for distribution on "27 October 2013".

Asked about the situation, the Herald's editor Fr Lawrence Andrew said that the Home Ministry did not give him any official explanation. What is more, however swiftly they carried out checks at Kota Kinabalu Airport, the seizure effectively "prevented the weekly's distribution" in time for last Sunday's Mass among Catholic parishes in Sabah.

Indeed, the decision to release the paper came only after Mgr Murphy Pakiam, archbishop of Kuala Lumpur, and Wilfred Madius Tangau, a lawmaker with the ruling party (Barisan Nasional), personally intervened in the matter.

It should be noted that Sabah (where the distribution of the weekly was stopped) is on the island of Borneo along with Sarawak. The two states are home to two thirds of Malaysia' Christians, and are very different from mainland Malaysia.

In this part of the country, the use of Allah has never been controversial. Christians have used it without any problems, living in relative harmony and closeness with members of other religions, often within the same family. For the past 14 years, the Catholic weekly has done the same.

In view of the controversy, Jagir Singh, president of the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHS), slammed the Home Ministry for claiming the right to "regulate fundamental liberties, including freedom of religion". Similarly, the Malaysian Council of Churches calls the decision "a violation of Churches' rights".

The issue of whether Christians have the right to use the word Allah for the Christian God in media and the Bible broke out in 2008 when the Home Ministry threatened to revoke the Herald's licence to publish. The weekly is Malaysia's main Catholic print publication.

In their response, Church leaders took the government to court for violating rights enshrined in the constitution.

In 2009, the High Court ruled in favour of the Catholic paper, granting Catholics the right to use the word Allah, a decision that shocked and angered many Muslims who claim the word for Islam's exclusive use. In turn, this unleashed a wave of violence in many parts of the country, with attacks and bombings against churches and other Christian places of worship.

In order to restrain and placate extremist Islamist groups, the Malaysian government appealed the court's decision.

Malaysia is located in Southeast Asia and has a population of more than 28 million people. A majority (60 per cent) are Muslim, followed by Buddhists. Christians constitute the third largest group numbering around 2.6 million.

A few years ago, a 400-year-old Latin-Malay dictionary was re-issued. It shows that Allah was used in the Bible as the word for God in the local language.

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