By BOB TEOH
Just days before the Court of Appeal will deliver its judgement whether the Catholic Herald can use the word ‘Allah' to refer to God, church leaders in Sabah and Sarawak have made it clear they will continue to use the word regardless of the outcome in court.
In a strongly worded statement last night they said, "The Bumiputera church will continue to use the Bahasa Malaysia Alkitab (Bible) together with the word 'Allah' both of which are fundamental to all aspects of the profession and practice of the Christian faith.
The Court of Appeal is scheduled to deliver its decision on Monday (14 October) on the appeal by the government against the High Court of Kuala Lumpur judgement on 31 Dec 2009 that the Home Minister was wrong in placing a condition on the renewal of the publishing licence of the Catholic Herald in 2007 that it cannot use the word ‘Allah' in its Bahasa Malaysia edition.
Last night's statement by the respective church leaders is a reiteration of an earlier one issued in five months ago over the controversy which was also drafted in an equally strong language. This is unprecedented and reflects an increasing unhappiness among East Malaysian Christians particularly Bumiputeras, over what they perceived as erosion of their religious freedom.
Rev Datuk Bolly Lapok, who is also the Anglican archbishop for Southeast Asia, issued the statement in Kuching as chairman of the Association of Churches in Sarawak (ACS) while Datuk Dr Thomas Tsen, bishop of the Basel Church of Sabah, issued a similarly worded statement in Kota Kinabalu as president of the Sabah Council of Churches.
"Two thirds of the Church in Malaysia consists of 1.6 million Bumiputera Christians of Sabah and Sarawak who use (the) Bahasa Malaysia language of worship in addition to their native languages. With the greatest respect to the governing authorities, whether they are the legislative, executive of judicial arms of government, we ask that religious bigotry, racism and extremism should not be perpetuated and allowed to fester and poison our Malaysian Nation," they said.
"Proscribing the use of the word ‘Allah' would instantly turn these native Bumiputeras into law breakers in the very land of which they are sons of the soil. This is not only abhorrent but wholly unacceptable."
They also pointed out that the various constitutional documents have highlighted the fact that while Islam is the religion of the federation, there will be complete freedom of religion with any hindrance placed on other religions.
"We, therefore, find it completely unacceptable that what are common practices of the Church in Sabah and Sarawak for hundreds of years and indeed for generations of Christians even before the very idea of Malaysia was conceived is now proscribed by administrative orders and laws, "they pointed out.
Whatever the outcome of the Court of Appeal decision on Monday, parties are expected to appeal further to the Federal Court for a final decision. The moot point of the decision is whether the Catholic Herald can use the word ‘Allah' in its Bahasa Malaysia edition. Therefore, by implication the decision is that the usage is confined to the Catholic Herald and not on the whole Bumiputera Christian community.
In addition, the 10-point solution by the Cabinet in 2011, as pointed out by the two bishops, allows the printing, import and distribution of the Alkitab which contains the word ‘Allah' to refer to God. In the deliberations before the Court of Appeal, the 10-point solution was not in dispute.
In this light, the bishops are correct in saying the churches will continue to use the word ‘Allah' as it is not part of the matter before the Court of Appeal. Therefore, the court's decision is likely to be confined to the Catholic Herald's bahasa edition. For the rest of the church, the status quo remains. There are two more cases part heard before the High Court involving the use of the ‘Allah' word although the circumstances are different.