KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 1 — In a small church 45km southwest of the city, some 700 Catholics celebrated the dawn of the new decade singing praises to “Allah”.
Father Lawrence Andrew, parish priest of the Church of St Anne, usually conducts Mass in Bahasa Malaysia on Sundays for the benefit of the 200 East Malaysians who have joined his parish in Port Klang.
But he decided to preach in the national language last night after the High Court delivered judgment which overjoyed Christians nationwide.
“It's a special Mass,” Lawrence told The Malaysian Insider over the phone yesterday evening.
“Allah is no longer prohibited to us,” he said, the smile coming through the phone line.
“My parish is small but there's a growing number of Sarawakians who have been coming to church. I use Bahasa Malaysia because English to them is a foreign language. And the younger generation too are able to understand Bahasa,” he explained.
The government had first banned the church from using the word “Allah” in a Christian context three years ago in the Catholic newpaper Herald, allegedly to avoid confusing the majority Muslims who also use the word for their God.
The church sued when the Home Ministry threatened to take back the publishing permit, which is required to be renewed every year.
Lawrence said he has been invited to preach in Kota Kinabalu tomorrow and will be doing so in Bahasa Malaysia as well.
According to census figures in Sabah, about 2.45 million people there are Christian while in Sarawak, Malaysia's largest state, statistics show 43 per cent of the population is Christian.
But Lawrence believes the figures are outdated and there are more Christians now in Borneo. He puts the figures in Sarawak closer to half the population.
The next census is due to be carried out in the middle of this year, according to the national Statistics Department.
The High Court yesterday ruled the Home Ministry ban was against the Federal Constitution which protects the rights of minorities.
Judge Datuk Lau Bee Lan declared the Herald has the constitutional right to publish the word “Allah” to refer to the Christian God.
She also struck out a second attempt by seven Muslim groups to join the Home Ministry in stopping the church, overturning a long-held but mistaken belief among some of the majority Muslims in the country that the word is exclusive to Islam.
Herald is the only Catholic paper in the country and has been in print for the past 20 years. Some 14,000 people subscribe to the weekly, which is limited for sale within church premises.
To cater to the diverse ethnicities in Malaysia, it publishes in four languages: English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil.
The church had last year applied to the Home Ministry to also publish in the Kadazandusun language but was turned down.
Lawrence, who edits Herald, told The Malaysian Insider that he was “very happy” with the court's decision, as was the Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur, Tan Sri Murphy Pakiam, named as the publisher when informed late yesterday evening.
The priest-editor said Catholics can look forward to reading articles which contain the world “Allah” again from Jan 10, when the next print issue of Herald comes out.
The online version of Herald (http://www.heraldmalaysia.com/) will include stories on “Allah” immediately.
But, Lawrence was quick to add he would not publish the word “Allah” just for the sake of putting it in.
“Only when it is relevant and we are quoting from Scriptures and the word is used,” he stressed.
The church had held back from publishing material containing the word “Allah” for the past two years, while waiting for the court outcome.
Despite the court's judgment, a Malay-Muslim politician from the ruling party continued to probe the Church's real reasons for pushing a Malay medium for its worship.
“What is their motive? Why all of a sudden they want to use the word 'Allah' when all this while they have been using the term God?” Datuk Tajuddin Abdul Rahman shot back when asked to comment by The Malaysian Insider.
“This is definitely provocation, they are just using all this human rights, religious rights as excuses. This is sensitive to the Muslims and this will create racial and religious tension,” the Pasir Salak MP said.
Lawrence was in the crowded court yesterday for the decision but rushed back to his parish to prepare for the special midnight worship to usher in the new year.
In his single-page statement, he welcomed the “long-awaited decision which clearly upholds the socio-cultural and anthropological body of evidence of the Christian people of the Malay archipelago, now Malaysia, in using the word 'Allah'.”
“We wish to state that the hearsay statements claiming that we have been using the word 'Allah' only recently is misleading and does not hold up to the rigour of historical scrutiny,” the priest said, referring to a Malay-Latin dictionary from 1631 which he claims is among the first-ever dictionaries printed in relation to the Malay language.
“This also means that the Bahasa Malaysia-speaking community of the Christian faith can now continue to freely use the word 'Allah' — a word that has been in their worship and instructions in the faith — without any interference from the authorities,” he said.