Malaysian Government Fight Over "Allah"

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CWN.org - Malaysia's Ministry of Home Affairs has ordered the Catholic weekly Herald to cease publishing its Malay-language section pending the outcome of a court case over the newspaper's right to use the Arabic word "Allah" for God.

The government also included two other conditions: The newspaper can be sold only in churches, and it must be printed clearly on the cover that it is meant for Christians only.

The three conditions were included in the renewal notice of the weekly's annual printing license issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs on Tuesday. A hearing in the court case is scheduled for Feb. 27.

The publisher of the Herald has rejected the conditions imposed on the newspaper and on Friday submitted a letter of appeal to the Ministry of Home Affairs.

Father Lawrence Andrew, editor of the Herald, told Compass that the letter did not specify consequences if the newspaper does not comply with the conditions. Officials from the Ministry of Home Affairs told the New Straits Times on Thursday that they will be monitoring the Herald's actions closely.

Fr. Andrew told Compass he hopes to receive a revocation of the restriction from the ministry in the next two days, before the first edition of the weekly for 2009 goes to print. Otherwise, the weekly will have to be scaled down to 24 pages, down by a quarter of its usual size.

Murphy Pakiam, Roman Catholic archbishop of Kuala Lumpur, told the New Straits Times on Saturday that he was "perplexed" by the ban on the Malay-language section of the newspaper and could not see how the restriction was related to the court case.

"Even if the courts dismiss our application for judicial review, that has no bearing on the publication in the Malay language," he said.

Fr. Andrew reportedly said the ban was "unacceptable" and urged the government to "let the court decide" and not "jump the gun." In a report by The Associated Press on Saturday , he described the prohibition as amounting to persecution.

"It curtails our freedom of expression and diminishes our rights as citizens," he told AP.

Earlier, Agence France-Presse reported Fr. Andrew as saying, "The constitution says Malay is the national language, so why can't we use the national language in Malaysia?"

Archbishop Pakiam told news website Malaysiakini.com on Friday that the publisher will consider legal action if it receives no response from the ministry within seven days or if the restriction is not retracted.

The Herald is a multilingual newspaper published by the Catholic Church of Malaysia. It typically publishes in four languages - English, Malay, Mandarin and Tamil - with the Malay-language section catering primarily to its East Malaysian indigenous members, who make up significantly more than half its readers.

The weekly has a circulation of 13,000 and an estimated readership of 50,000. The newspaper is sold in Catholic churches and is not available from newsstands.

In 2007 the government issued a series of warnings to the Herald to discourage the publisher from using the word "Allah" in referring to God in the Malay-language section of its multilingual newspaper. The government feared use of the word might cause confusion among the country's majority-Muslim population.

The publisher, however, maintained that it had a right to use the word and took the government to court over the issue. This latest prohibition was issued ahead of the court hearing scheduled in February.

Malaysia's population is about 60 percent Muslim, 19 percent Buddhist and 9 percent Christian. About 6 percent are Hindu, with 2.6 percent of the population adhering to Confucianism, Taoism and other traditional Chinese religions.

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