Christian-Muslim Tension Mounts in Malaysia

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Malaysia is scrambling to try and contain religious tensions between Christians and Muslims.

Police are investigating nearly a dozen acts of violence, including several arson attacks, against Christians.

Tempers Flare

Tensions erupted last week following a controversial court ruling that allows non-Muslims to use the word Allah for God.

At the center of this controversy is The Herald, a Catholic newspaper, that was banned by the Malaysian government from using the word Allah in their literature.

Muslims believe that Allah - which means God in the Malay language - refers to the Muslim God and can only be used by Muslims.

However, the Herald's editor said the case was an affront to religious freedom.

"When you tell somebody of another faith that you can't use a word to worship God then where are we heading to?," said Rev. Lawrence Andrew, the newspaper's editor. "Is there another word that we can use which is the language for God? There's none!"

Andrew appealed the decision and on December 31, a Malaysian court overturned the ban.

"We asked for justice and we gained this justice," he said.

Muslims Protest Court Ruling 

Within hours of the court's ruling, Muslim groups took to the streets of the capital city of Kuala Lumpur protesting the overturning of the Allah ban.

"This is a very sensitive matter," said Arman Azha Hanifah, a Muslim leader. "We tolerated the Christians and now we need them to tolerate us back."

Muslims have fire-bombed or vandalized nine churches setting off a wave of panic among Malaysia's minorities.

"This is a despicable act of cowardice, of hatred and in fact I'm lost for words, because I cannot believe that this can happen in Malaysia today," said Khairy Jamaluddin, BN Youth Chief.

Malaysian Constitution Guarantees Freedom of Religion  

Christians make up around 9 percent of the population in the majority Muslim nation. Some are accusing them of using the word "Allah" to try and convert Muslims.

The Malaysian constitution guarantees freedom of religion. But today, non-Muslims fear those freedoms are being curtailed by powerful forces who want to turn Malaysia into an Islamic state.

"Meaning that the extreme fundamentalist tend to believe that the laws of Malaysia must be Sharia compliant," explained Rev. Wong Kim Kong of the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship.

Kim Kong says there has been a subtle and gradual encroachment by extreme fundamentalist Muslims in the affairs and rights of Christians.

For example, officers of the Malay Internal Security Religious Department raided several Christian bookstores and seized childrens' books, claiming that they violated Islamic Sharia law and aroused Muslim sensitivities.

In the past few years, several indigenous churches have also been destroyed by the Islamic police.

Growing Signs of Islamic Fundamentalism

Some analysts say the attacks are a sign of a creeping Islamization that threatens to undermine Malaysia's image as a moderate and progressive nation.

"One of the things we hear quite a bit of in Malaysia is the need to protect Muslim sensitivities," said Ioannis Gatsiounis, a freelance journalist working in Malaysia. "I don't think that bodes well for tolerance. Tolerance is not about protecting sensitivities, but about getting people used to accepting other people as they are."

The Malaysian government says the situation is under control and has promised to maintain the country's religious diversity.

"We will carry on monitoring this situation, and we'll make sure that this matter will not get out of hand," said Malaysia Home Minister Hishamuddin Hussein.

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