FaithWorld

Rising Christian anger in Malaysia over Bible seizures

malay bible

(A Bible in the Malay language at a church in Kuala Lumpur March 30, 2011/Bazuki Muhammad )

Rising Christian anger in mainly Muslim Malaysia over the government’s handling of a case involving seized Bibles could complicate Prime Minister Najib Razak’s bid to win back the support of minorities ahead of an early general election. The row over 35,100 imported Malay language Bibles and Christian texts impounded by Customs authorities comes amid a legal battle on the right of non-Muslims to use the Arabic word “Allah” and could raise ethno-religious tensions in the country. The Bibles were seized in 2009 but the case was only made public in January.

“There has been a systematic and progressive pushing back of the public space to practise, to profess and to express our faith,” Bishop Ng Moon Hing, chairman of the Christian Federation of Malaysia (CFM), said in a statement on Wednesday.

Christians make up 9.1 percent of the country’s 28 million population. Chinese and Indian non-Muslim ethnic minorities have abandoned the government, leading to record losses for Najib’s ruling coalition in the last national polls in 2008 and growing complaints of marginalisation.

The row signals continuing minority discontent that could stymie Najib’s bid to reverse the 2008 poll losses and to accelerate the implementation of tax and subsidy reforms, which have slowed due to the government’s wariness about upsetting voters.

Q+A-What’s fuelling insurgency in Thailand’s Malay Muslim south?

Mosque in southern Thailand with Thai flags,

Mosque in southern Thailand with Thai flags,8 Sept 2009/Surapan Boonthanom

Bombs killed one security officer and wounded another in Thailand’s restive deep South on Thursday during a visit by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, underlying the failure of successive governments to tackle a separatist insurgency in the Malay Muslim-dominated region which entered its sixth year on Monday with a death toll of nearly 4,000.

The current leaders of the insurgency are unknown. The authorities have long suspected prominent local politicians, religious leaders and Islamic teachers of involvement.

Despite reports of links to radical Islamists or a global jihadi movement, there is no evidence to suggest the conflict is anything more than a localised, ethno-nationalist struggle.  However, aggressive crackdowns, any extrajudicial killings by security forces and the perceived oppression of Muslims could attract involvement by militant Islamic networks such as al Qaeda, leading to an escalation in and beyond the region.

Q+A – What’s next in Malaysia’s “Allah” row?

allah facebook

Facebook group protesting Allah ruling, 5 Jan 2010/Bazuki Muhammad

Malaysia’s government has filed for a stay of execution pending its appeal of a court ruling allowing a Malay-language Catholic paper to describe the Christian God as “Allah”, amid growing Islamic anger in the country. We reported on the dispute here yesterday, including how it has spilled over into Facebook.

What lies ahead in this row threatening to increase religious tensions in the mainly Muslim but multi-racial Southeast Asian country?

Our Q+A asks why this is arousing so much anger, what happens next, whether there will be political fallout from the dispute and whether religious tensions present an important threat to religious, political and economic interests in Malaysia.

Malaysia’s “Allah” row spills over into Facebook

allah herald

The word "Allah" in a Malay-language Catholic newspaper, 29 Dec 2009/Bazuki Muhammad

More than 43,000 Malaysians have protested online over a court ruling allowing a Malay-language Catholic paper to use the word “Allah” for “God,” signaling growing Islamic anger in this mostly Muslim Southeast Asian country.

A group page on social networking site Facebook was drawing 1,500 new supporters an hour on Monday as last week’s court ruling split political parties and even families.  Among those who signed up for the protest were Deputy Trade Minister Mukhriz Mahathir, the son of Malaysia’s longest serving prime minister, Mahathir Mohamed, while Mahathir’s daughter Marina called critics of the court decision “idiots” in her blog.

Pope Benedict on “haj” in Jordan

haj-1Sitting through a media briefing in Amman on Pope Benedict’s visit to Jordan starting on Friday, I whiled away the news-free parts trying to decipher the Arabic writing on the official logo (photo at right). I never fully mastered the Arabic alphabet or the Urdu language (which uses it) during my time in Pakistan over 20 years ago. But some hard-won bits of linguistic trivia remain stuck in the brain and come in handy at the most unexpected moments.

With some effort on my part, that arc of Arabic calligraphy up top revealed itself as saying al-haj al-babawi. The haj of baba … hmmm… Arabic has no “p,” so that could be the haj of papa. The Italians call him papa, so it must be talking about the pope and saying the pope’s haj. Huh? The pope’s haj?

Of course, the word haj simply means “pilgrimage” in Arabic. Western languages have taken it over as the specific term for the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. But the pope has a snowball’s chance in you-know-where to get there. Haj means pilgrimage, no more and no less, and it describes the pope’s visit just the same way as he does in the words of the many western languages he speaks.

Malaysia trying to find its religious equilibrium

MALAYSIA/ Multicultural Malaysia, whose official religion is Islam but which has sizeable numbers of Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs, has been struggling of late to ensure religious freedoms for its minorities, without offending the sensibilities of majority Muslims.

In the latest case, a Malaysian court granted permission to a Christian to challenge the authorities for seizing religious materials that used the word “Allah”. The government has banned the use of the Arabic word to describe God by all except for Muslims, saying it might confuse Muslims or offend their sensisibilities. (Photo: A Hindu pilgrim outside Kuala Lumpur, 8 Feb 2009/Zainal Abd Halim)

The Catholic Herald, Malaysia’s main Catholic newspaper, has been fighting the government for months over the right to use the word “Allah”. Herald Editor Rev. Lawrence Andrew argues that Malaysian Christians have used “Allah” as their term for God for centuries. In a recent edition, the Herald slammed a new locally produced Bible, which further muddied these troubled waters by using the Hebrew word “Elohim” instead of “Allah” (or God for that matter) for the Almighty.

A selection of religion reports: week of March 8

manila-moonReuters publishes many more reports on religion, faith and ethics than we can mention on the FaithWorld blog. We sometimes highlight a story here, but often leave an issue unmentioned because it was already covered on the wire, or we have neither the time nor any extra information for a blog post. Here’s a sample of some of the stories we’ve published over the past week:

Philippines says open to amending Muslim autonomy law 13 Mar 2009

China says willing to meet Dalai Lama’s envoys 13 Mar 2009

Jews ask pope for Holocaust studies in schools 12 Mar 2009tibet

Turkey denies firing editor over Darwin article 12 Mar 2009

Pope says pained over “hate, hostility” against him 12 Mar 12 2009

China says it must approve Dalai Lama reincarnation 12 Mar 2009

U.S. says some states curb free speech in name of religion 12 Mar 2009

Australia says may quit UN racism conference 12 Mar 2009

Pope admits Holocaust denier affair was mishandled 12 Mar 2009

Pope to visit Rome synagogue in autumn 12 Mar 2009pope-rabbi

Malaysia Christians battle with Muslims over Allah 11 Mar 2009

“Big Love” network apologizes to Mormons 11 Mar 2009

Catholics protest Connecticut church finance bill 11 Mar 2009

Russia church offers to help Kremlin weather crisis 11 Mar 2009

Pope admits Holocaust denier affair was mishandled 11 Mar 2009

Cardinal says bad bankers must ask God’s pardon 11 Mar 2009

US fertility patients want final say on embryos 11 Mar 2009

Dalai Lama slams China over Tibet “suffering” 10 Mar 2009obama

Cameroon demolishes street stalls for Pope’s visit 10 Mar 2009

Stem cell go-ahead puts Obama at odds with pope 10 Mar 2009

Somali cabinet votes to implement sharia law 10 Mar 2009

FACTBOX: Embryonic stem cells, the ultimate master cell 10 Mar 2009

Stem cell advocates finally get their Obama moment 09 Mar 2009

French filmmaker slammed for likening illegals to WWII Jews 09 Mar 2009

jp2-yad-vashem1Vatican paper: Washing machine liberated women most 09 Mar 2009

Chechnya wants newborns to be named after Mohammad 09 Mar 2009

Obama to let health institute decide on stem cells 08 Mar 2009

US stem cell announcement only a first step 08 Mar 2009

Pope to visit Holocaust memorial during Israel trip 08 Mar 2009

Turkish Mosque Holds First Official Kurdish Sermon 08 Mar 2009

(Photo credits from top: Romeo Ranoco, Philippe Wojazer, Alessia Pierdomenico, Larry Downing, stringer)

What’s in a name: Are God and Allah the same?

malaysia-feature“We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only son of Allah.”

Malaysian Catholics recite this prayer in Malay daily at Masses across the country such as a recent one in St. Francis Xavier Cathedral in Keningau, a sprawling timber town in the Malaysian state of Sabah on Borneo island that Niluksi Koswanage visited for this feature about tensions between Christians and the majority Muslims.

Muslims object to Christians using the word “Allah” in their services and publications, even though it is the normal word for God in Malay. The Muslims say it could undermine Islam and aims to convert Muslims. The row over the use of Allah to describe the Christian God feeds into a long-running feud over conversions between the government of a country where all Malays must be Muslims, and other faiths such as Hinduism and Buddhism that are practised by ethnic Indians and Chinese. (Photo: Mass at St. Francis Cathdral in Keningau, Malaysia, 22 Feb 2009/Bazuki Mohammad)

It is illegal in Malaysia to convert from Islam to any other religion, although conversions to Islam are allowed. Malaysian Muslim activists and officials see using the word Allah in Christian publications including bibles as attempts to proselytise. Those concerns led to a ban on the main Catholic newspaper in Malaysia, the Catholic Herald, on using the word “Allah” to denote God. The government partially lifted the ban in mid-February, only to reimpose it later that month. The Herald is now suing the government to overturn the ruling.