01/09/2014, 00.00
MALAYSIA
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The 'Allah' affair: Police interrogates Fr Lawrence, turns evidence over to prosecutor

The Public Prosecutor gets transcript from the priest's police interrogation. As the editor of the Herald, the latter is under investigation for "sedition". He plans to avoid making any statement that might further fuel the controversy. However, the matter has already crossed national boundaries as a US-based imam appeals to the Malaysian government; for him, banning the use of the word 'Allah' by Christians is a "tragic mistake."

Kuala Lumpur (AsiaNews) - Malaysian police handed the Public Prosecutor's Office the transcript of the interrogation of Fr Lawrence Andrew, editor of the Catholic weekly Herald, which has come under fire from the authorities for its recent statements in the 'Allah' affair.

The Public Prosecutor's Office has denied rumours that the priest might have to appear again after the authorities went after him for criticising the raid and seizure of hundreds of copies of the Bible by Selangor Islamic authorities.

With Fr Lawrence under investigation on charges of "sedition," Catholic sources report that the situation is "very difficult". However, the priest has no plans to make any official statements to the press in order to avoid further inflaming the controversy.

The case has crossed national borders and sparked a debate among Muslims around the world. Muhammad Musri, a US-based imam and expert in Islamic law, addressed the Malaysian government, urging them to allow Catholics to use the name 'Allah'.

"I am a Muslim scholar and an Imam who has memorised the Qur'an. And I'm fully convinced that the Malaysian court's decision [against Christians using the word 'Allah'] runs counter to the core values and spirit of Islam," he said. In his opinion, the local court should "correct" the "tragic mistake."

On Tuesday, police in Selangor questioned Fr Lawrence for two hours. The clergyman's statement that Islamic organisations and institutions have no right or jurisdiction over Christian institutions and associations was at the centre of the interrogation.

In his view, the raid against the offices of the Bible Society of Malaysia (BMS) and the seizure of Bibles, as AsiaNews reported in recent days, is "profoundly wrong" and an "unlawful" act.

Local churches, he went on to say, will continue to use the name 'Allah' in reference to the Christian God during Sunday services because the ban applies only to its use by the Catholic weekly.

Meanwhile, police today concluded their investigation, turning the evidence over to the Public Prosecutor's Office to evaluate individual positions and decide whether there is enough evidence for an indictment. In addition to the priest, they heard another 99 people during their investigation.

During his tête-à-tête with police, Fr Lawrence provided several pieces of evidence (ancient texts, bibles and more) that show Christians using the word 'Allah'.

The subpoena issued against Fr Lawrence was widely covered in Malaysia, coming a few days after officials from the Selangor Islamic Religious Department (JAIS) raided the offices of the Bible Society of Malaysia (BMS).

During the raid, the JAIS seized 320 copies of the Bible in Malay and detained for a few hours two members of the Christian community, who were later released. 

The Islamist raid against the BMS's headquarters is part of the ongoing controversy over the use of the word 'Allah' by non-Muslims, which involved the editor of the Catholic weekly Herald and the authorities, a situation that is now before the court.

Last October, after the Court of Appeal ruled against Fr Lawrence's Catholic weekly denying it the right to use the word 'Allah when referring to the Christian God, the priest filed an appeal against the decision.

Since then, the Interior Ministry seized 2,000 copies of the Archdiocese's weekly at Kuala Lumpur's Kota Kinabalu Airport, in the state of Sabah.

The seizure was "justified" by the need to check that the publication was "complying" with the court order and that the word Allah was not being "unlawfully used".

The controversy began in 2008 when the government threatened to take away the permit to publish from the country's most important Catholic paper.

Church leaders reacted by taking the government to court for violating constitutional rights. In 2009, the High Court ruled in favour of the Catholics. However, the ruling angered Muslims, who consider the word to be exclusive to Islam.

After a wave of violence swept across the country, with attacks against churches and other Christian places of worship, the government appealed the court decision in an attempt to stop extremists.

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 term 'Allah' was used to describe the Biblical God in the local language.

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