Malaysian Christians Seek to End Restrictions on Malay Bibles

Federation calls for removal of ‘every impediment’ to importing and printing Scripture.

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, April 6 (CDN) — Christian importers of Bibles that Malaysian officials detained are balking at conditions the government has imposed for their release, such as defacement of the sacred books with official stamps.

The Home Ministry stamped the words, “This Good News [Malay] Bible is for use by Christians only” on 5,100 Bibles without consulting the importer, the Bible Society of Malaysia (BSM), which initially refused to collect them as it had neither accepted nor agreed to the conditions. The Home Ministry applied the stamp a day after the government on March 15 issued a release order for the Bibles, which had been detained in Port Klang, 38 kilometers (24 miles) southwest of Kuala Lumpur, since March 20, 2009.

Another 30,000 Bibles detained since Jan. 12 on the island of Borneo remain in port after the Sarawak state Home Ministry told the local chapter of Gideons International that it could collect them if the organization would put the stamp on them. Gideons has thus far declined to do so, and a spokesman said yesterday (April 5) that officials had already defaced the books with the stamp.

The government issued letters of release to both organizations on March 15 under the condition that the books bear the stamp, “Reminder: This Good News [Malay] Bible is for use by Christians only. By order of the Home Minister,” and that the covers must carry a serial number, the official seal of the department and a date.

The Home Ministry’s stamping of the BSM Bibles without the organization’s permission came under fire from the Christian community. In a statement issued on March 17, Bishop Ng Moon Hing, chairman of the Christian Federation of Malaysia (CFM), described the Home Ministry’s action as desecration.

“[The] new conditions imposed on the release of the impounded Bibles … is wholly unacceptable to us,” he added.

Ng described the conditions imposed by the Home Ministry as tantamount to treating the Malay Bible as a “restricted item” and subjecting the word of God to the control of man. In response, Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein has said the act of stamping and serialization was standard protocol.


Government Overtures

In the weeks following the March 15 release order, the government made several attempts to try to appease the Christian community through Idris Jala, a Christian from Sarawak state and a minister in the Prime Minister’s Department.

Idris issued the government’s first statement on March 22, explaining that officials had reduced earlier conditions imposed by the Home Ministry to require only the words, “For Christianity” to be stamped on the covers of the Bible in font type Arial, size 16, in bold.

Idris informed BSM that the Bibles could be collected in their present state or arrangements could be made to have stickers with the words “For Christianity” pasted over the imprint of the stamps made by the Home Ministry officials. In the event that this was not acceptable, the minister pointed out that BSM had the option of having the whole consignment replaced, since the government had received an offer from Christian donors who were prepared to bear the full cost of purchasing new Bibles.

In response, the CFM issued a statement on March 30 saying, “The offer made does address the substantive issues,” and called on the government “to remove every impediment, whether legal or administrative, to the importation, publication, distribution and use of the [Malay Bible] and indeed to protect and defend our right to use the [Malay Bible].”

Bishop Ng, however, left it to the two importers to decide whether to collect the Bibles based on their specific circumstances.

On March 31, BSM collected the mishandled Bibles “to prevent the possibility of further acts of desecration or disrespect.” In a press statement, BSM officials explained that the copies cannot be sold but “will be respectfully preserved as museum pieces and as a heritage for the Christian Church in Malaysia.” The organization also made it clear that it will only accept compensation from the Home Ministry and not from “Christian donors,” a term it viewed suspiciously.

On Saturday (April 2), Idris issued a 10-point statement to try to resolve the impasse. Significantly, this latest overture by the government included the lifting of present restrictions to allow for the local printing and importation of Malay and other indigenous-language Bibles into the country.

In Sarawak and Sabah, there would be no conditions attached to Bibles printed locally or imported. There also would be no prohibitions and restrictions on residents of these two states carrying such Bibles to other states. A significant 64 percent of Malaysian Christians are indigenous people from Sabah and Sarawak states who use the Malay language in their daily life, and having the Bible in the Malay language is considered critical to the practice of their Christian faith.

In the case of West Malaysia, however, in view of its larger Muslim population, the government imposed the condition that the Bibles must have the words “Christian publication” and the sign of the cross printed on the front covers.


Christian Response

Most Christians responded to this latest overture with caution. Many remained skeptical, seeing it as a politically motivated move in view of Sarawak state elections on April 16. Nearly half of Sarawak’s population is Christian.

Bolly Lapok, an Anglican priest, told the online news agency Malaysian Insider, “It’s an assurance, but we have been given such assurances before.” BSM General-Secretary the Rev. Simon Wong reportedly expressed the same sentiments, saying the Home Ministry already has a record of breaking its word.

The Rev. Thomas Phillips of the Mar Thoma Church, who is also president of the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism, questioned the timing of the proposal: “Why, after all these years?”

The youth wing of the Council of Churches rejected the proposal outright, expressing fears that the government was trying to “buy them over” for the Sarawak election, and that it would go back on its word after that.

Bishop Paul Tan, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Malaysia, called the proposal an “insidious tactic of ‘divide and rule,’” referring to its different requirements imposed on Malaysians separated by the South China Sea. Dr. Ng Kam Weng, research director at Kairos Research Centre, stressed that the proposal “does not address the root problem of the present crisis, i.e. the Allah issue.”


Muslim Reactions

The 10-point proposal has also drawn the ire of Muslim groups, who view it as the government caving in to Christian pressure.

Perak Mufti Harussani Zakaria expressed his disappointment, reportedly saying, “If the government does this, just cancel the law,” in reference to various state Islamic enactments that prohibit the use of the word “Allah” and other so-called Islamic terms that led to the banning of the Malay Bible. Malay Bibles have not been allowed to be printed locally for fear that they will utilize “prohibited” words.

The Muslim Organizations in Defense of Islam (Pembela) threatened to challenge the 10-point proposal in court if it was not reviewed in consultation with Muslim representatives.

On the same day Pembela issued its statement, the government seemed to have retracted its earlier commitment. The Home Minister reportedly said talks on the Malay Bibles were still ongoing despite Idris’ 10-point proposal, which purportedly represents the Cabinet’s decision.

As a result, James Redas Noel of the Gideons said yesterday (April 5) that he was confused by the mixed messages coming from the government and will not make a decision on whether to collect the Bibles until he had consulted church leaders on the matter, according to the Malaysian Insider.

The issue with the Malay Bibles is closely tied to the dispute over use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims.

In a controversial court ruling on Dec. 31, 2009, judge Lau Bee Lan had allowed The Herald, a Catholic newspaper, to use “Allah” for God in the Malay section of its multilingual newspaper.

The Home Ministry filed an appeal against this decision on Jan. 4, 2010. To date, there is no indication as to when the case will be heard.

Christians make up more than 9 percent of Malaysia’s nearly 28 million people, according to Operation World.

Report from Compass Direct News

Seizure of 15,000 Bibles in Malaysia Stuns Christians

Imports confiscated for using “Allah,” a forbidden word for non-Muslims.

FRESNO, Calif., November 7 (CDN) — Malaysian port and customs authorities have seized at least 15,000 Bibles in recent months because the word “Allah” for God appears in them.

Some 10,000 of the Bahasa Malaysia-language Bibles, which were printed in Indonesia, are in Kuching, capital of Sarawak in East Malaysia, and another 5,000 copies are in Kelang near Kuala Lumpur.

The Christian Federation of Malaysia (CFM) on Wednesday (Nov. 4) called for the immediate release of the confiscated Bibles. At the same time, CFM Executive Secretary Tan Kong Beng told Compass that the federation is striving for amicable relations with government authorities.

“We are open to and desire further discussion with officials so that this problem can be resolved,” the CFM official said.

The CFM officially represents the three major Christian groups in the country: The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Malaysia, the Council of Churches of Malaysia, and the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship Malaysia.

A strong Christian community in Indonesia, estimated 37 million by Operation World, has long produced large amounts of literature for export to Malaysia. In 2005 the government of Malaysia agreed to allow the use of “Allah” in non-Muslim literature, according to CFM.

“The government and CFM have exchanged letters on this matter previously,” reads the CFM statement, “and we have a written agreement in December 2005 that Bahasa Malaysia Bibles can be distributed so long as the symbol of the cross and the words ‘A Christian publication’ are printed on the front page.”

With the exception of the temporary suspension of publication of the Roman Catholic Herald newspaper in 2007 and the ongoing court battle over the weekly’s use of “Allah,” few problems were encountered in the policy. This past March, however, authorities suddenly began seizing CDs, Sunday school materials, and Bibles containing the word “Allah.”

Church leaders were stunned that no one had informed them of a change in policy. Quiet negotiations failed to resolve the situation, and several lawsuits began working their way through the court system. These suits challenge the right of the Minister of Home Affairs to restrict the use of “Allah” and to limit freedom of religion.

“To withhold the use of the Bahasa Malaysia Bibles is an infringement of Article 11 of the Federal Constitution, which gives every Malaysian the right to profess his/her faith as well as to practice it,” according to the CFM.

A government official in Malaysia was unavailable for comment. Officially, the government says only that use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims could create “confusion” among Muslims.

The Kuala Lumpur High Court in Malaysia was scheduled to determine the legality of the word “Allah” in non-Muslim literature on July 7 but postponed the decision. The Herald newspaper had been allowed to use the term until a final court decision was to be handed down, but the Kuala Lumpur High Court on May 30 overturned that brief reprieve. 

The Rev. Lawrence Andrew, editor of the Herald, has cited examples from Malay dictionaries going back to the 17th century that use “Allah” as the vernacular translation for God. He has also noted that “Allah” is an Arabic term derived from the same roots as the Hebrew Elohim, and that the word pre-dates Muhammad, Islam’s prophet.

The Herald 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.

While the issue is tied up in the courts, many are hoping for a more harmonious solution to the problem. Both Indonesia and Malaysia use variations of Malay as their national languages, and all translations of the Bible in both countries used “Allah” for God until Malaysian authorities decided in the past few years that it was an Islamic term that should be used only by Muslims. In so doing, Malaysia effectively shut off the importation of Christian literature from Indonesia.

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.

Report from Compass Direct News 


Judges to determine whether Malaysians of other faiths can use the Arabic word.

MUMBAI, India, July 6 (Compass direct News) – With the Kuala Lumpur High Court in Malaysia scheduled to determine the legality of the word “Allah” in non-Muslim literature tomorrow, what is at stake goes beyond the sanctioned name for God among non-Muslims in the majority-Muslim nation.

Such a limit on free speech in Malaysia is especially biting for Muslim converts to Christianity; already the Malaysian government does not recognize their conversions and marriages and still considers their offspring to be legally Muslim. With non-Muslims increasingly feeling the sting of discrimination and Muslim elites feeling a need to assert a national Islamic identity, the skirmish over “Allah” is clearly part of a greater cultural war.

Malaysian authorities and Malaysia’s Roman Catholic Church have continued to lock horns over use of the word “Allah” in the Malay-language edition of the Herald, the church’s newspaper, as they await the ruling. The newspaper had been allowed to use the term until a final court decision, but the Kuala Lumpur High Court on May 30 overturned that brief reprieve.

The Catholic newspaper has provided a panoply of historical uses of “Allah” among Christians in Malaysia. The Rev. Lawrence Andrew, editor of the Herald, quotes examples from a Malay-Latin dictionary dated 1631, and the Dutch-Malay Dictionary of 1650 lists “Allah” as the vernacular translation for God.

“This is testified by the fact that we have a Malay-Latin Dictionary printed in 1631, in which the word ‘Allah’ is cited,” Andrew said. “To have a word in a dictionary means that that particular word has already been in use in the community prior to the dictionary. The word for ‘God’ in Latin is ‘Deus’ and in Malay, it is ‘Allah.’ Upon the arrival of the Dutch…a Dutch-Malay Dictionary was produced in 1650 where the word for ‘God’ in Dutch was ‘Godt,’ and in Malay, ‘Allah.’”

According to church sources, the Malay term for “God,” Tuhan, came into vogue only after deadly May 13, 1969 communal riots as part of a national unity campaign.

Andrew noted that “Allah” is an Arabic term derived from the same roots as the Hebrew Elohim, and that the word pre-dates Muhammad, Islam’s prophet. Besides ignoring history, Andrew says, the government also conveniently ignores its universal use among Christians in the Middle East.

“Since the status quo remains, we will not use the word ‘Allah’ in our publication” until the court says otherwise, Andrew said. “In fact we have not been using it since our January edition.”

Since 1970, the government of Malaysia has consistently championed Islam as a parallel source of identity and nationalism among the politically dominant Malay-Muslim majority. Dress codes, cultural norms and the Malay language underwent a rapid Islamization in tandem with discriminative actions against minority groups.

Christians were particularly hard-hit by the effort in the name of national unity. Licences are rarely issued for church buildings in the capital city, Kuala Lumpur. New evangelical congregations had to meet at either hotels or warehouses for their Sunday services while Islamic semiotics and terminologies swamped the intellectual and official discourse. Conversion of Christians to Islam were particularly trumpeted by the media.

These efforts have largely failed. Local churches continued to grow, and the number of secret Muslim converts to Christianity began to rise.

At the same time, pandemic corruption and political authoritarianism have gradually led to a sense of disenchantment with political Islam among many. This erosion in Malay-Islam dominance has led to political bankruptcy, as evidenced by disastrous results for the ruling coalition during March 2008 general elections.

Given these political realities, Malay elites believe they can ill afford to be seen as soft on minority “encroachment,” and observers say this need to ingratiate Islamists lies at the root of the tussle over non-Muslim use of the word “Allah.” Officially, however, the government says only that use of the word among non-Muslims could create “confusion” among Muslims.

The Herald 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.

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.

Arabicization of Malay Language

The debate over “Allah” follows an effort by the government to promote the Arabicization of the Malay language at the expense of Sanskrit and Malay terms. When a Malaysian student has to refer to a pig in an essay or test, the required term is the Arabic khinzir.

Other Malay terms such as pokok (tree) and bunga (flower), long used to refer to loan principal and interest respectively, have been expunged from school texts in favor of the Arabic kaedah (base) and faedah (benefit).

Some sources indicate that the Arabicization of the Malay language, however, has come with unintended consequences, such as making Christian mission work and translation easier. Since the Malay vocabulary has its limitations, Christians can use time-tested Arabic-derived terms to provide meaningful context.

For a long time, the only Malay Bible available in Malaysia was the Indonesian “Al Kitab,” which, included the word “Allah.” As Bahasa Malaysia (official name of the Malay language in Malaysia) and Bahasa Indonesia are very similar, the “Al Kitab” can be easily understood by a native speaker of Malay. As a result, the “Al Kitab” was viewed as an unwelcome missionary tool by Malaysian authorities. Its legal status was heatedly contested behind closed doors during the 1981-2003 reign of then-Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad.

Significant Christian indigenous populations in East Malaysia use Bahasa Malaysia as a language of wider communication. The Malay-language content of the Herald reportedly serves just that need: using the national language with universal terms across a multi-lingual Babel of tribal Catholic communities in East Malaysia.

Report from Compass Direct News 


Muslim protestors disrupt public forum on dual legal system’s jurisdictional disputes.

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, August 15 (Compass Direct News) – A civil court on Aug. 5 denied a woman’s appeal to renounce Islam in favor of Christianity, highlighting the jurisdictional disputes in Malaysia’s dual legal system.

Lim Yoke Khoon had filed a suit in her original ethnic Chinese name to renounce Islam and embrace Christianity. In a 2-1 majority ruling, the Shah Alam Court of Appeal denied her case on a technicality: According to judges Tengku Baharudin Shah Tengku Mahmud and Sulong Mat Jeraie, Lim had ceased to exist under her original name when she converted to Islam and assumed a new name, Noorashikin Lim binti Abdullah.

The 35-year-old Lim is reportedly expected to appeal to the country’s top civil court.

After marrying a Muslim man in 1994, Lim converted to Islam and obtained a new identity card with her Muslim name. She divorced three years later. In 2003, she applied for a change to her name and religion on her identity card, but the National Registration Department told her she must get permission from the Islamic sharia court to renounce Islam.

She sought a declaration from the high court that she was no longer a Muslim, but it ruled in 2006 that it had no jurisdiction to hear the case.

Malaysia’s civil courts have not been known to rule in favor of non-Muslims in conversion cases in recent years. Many, such as Lina Joy, have been directed to obtain an exit certificate from the sharia court in order to leave Islam. But Lina – and others like her – are reluctant to subject themselves to a religious court that has no jurisdiction over them since they are no longer professing Muslims.


Quelling Discussion

A public forum to discuss such jurisdictional disputes, in this case the dual court system’s effect on families of people who convert to Islam, was scheduled for Saturday (Aug. 9) but Muslim protestors succeeded in halting it after only one hour.

Sponsored by a body of legal practitioners called the Malaysian Bar Council, the public forum that began at 9 a.m. was scheduled to last until 1 p.m., but police advised organizers to end it at 10 a.m. as protestors outside the council headquarters shouting “Allahu Akbar [God is greater],” “Destroy Bar Council” and “Long Live Islam” became rowdy. A handful of protestors flanked by police officers marched into the building shouting for the meeting to end immediately.

The protestors included members from several Malay-Muslim movements, including the Malaysian Islamic Propagation and Welfare Organization and the Federation of Malay Students Union, as well as members of political parties such as the United Malays National Organization, the People’s Justice Party (PKR) and Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS).

The forum had been widely criticized by various Malay-Muslim groups and individuals for raising the ire of Muslims by touching on issues sensitive to Islam. Among those critical were cabinet ministers, including Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak, Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar and Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Dr. Ahmad Zahid Hamidi.

Prior to the event, the Bar Council had been urged to either cancel the forum or hold the event behind closed doors, but the organizers decided to proceed albeit with the cautionary measure of requiring participants at the open forum to register.

A day prior to the forum, the Bar Council issued a press release to clarify the purpose of the forum through council Vice President Ragunath Kesavan. Ragunath made clear that the forum would not question the provisions of Article 121(1A), which confer jurisdiction over Muslims in personal, religious and family matters on the sharia courts, and that the forum would not question Islam or its status as enshrined in the Federal Constitution.

Rather, Ragunath said, the purpose of the meeting was to address issues affecting families of those who convert to Islam and were caught between the separate jurisdiction of the civil and sharia courts.

The morning of the forum, two unidentified men on motorcycles threw kerosene bombs into the compound of a residence formerly occupied by the president of the Bar Council, Ambiga Sreenevasan. Many believed the incident was linked to the Bar Council’s forum on conversion.


Other Muslim Responses

Not all Muslims agreed with the protestors’ actions.

Leaders of the Muslim political party PAS and Muslim-led multi-racial party, PKR, have distanced themselves from members who participated in the raucous disruption of the Bar Council forum.

Dr. Dzulkifli Ahmad, director of the PAS Research Centre, told The Star daily on Wednesday (Aug. 13), “We were unanimous that [the forum] should have been allowed to proceed,” and that “those who had united to oppose the forum had no understanding of the issue at hand.”

PKR Deputy President Syed Husin Ali reportedly also condemned the “rough action” of the protestors, although he said the party agreed with its adviser Anwar Ibrahim that the meeting should have been held behind closed doors “in view of the sensitive reactions and wrong perception among a section of the Malay-Muslim community.”

Karim Raslan, a Malay-Muslim columnist at The Star argued that “we can’t achieve any sense of mutual agreement unless we are willing to talk – and openly – to one another about the issues that matter.”


Non-Muslim Reactions

Civil society groups and members of the non-Muslim community, including those from the ruling coalition government, have also criticized the Muslim protestors’ actions for failing to acknowledge long-standing problems non-Muslims caught in jurisdictional conflict situations have had to face and endure.

Others have urged the government to take decisive and immediate steps to address the problems arising from the country’s dual legal system. In Malaysia, sharia laws are binding on Muslims in personal, religious and family matters while civil laws apply to all citizens.

Joint Action Group for Gender Equality, representing five different women’s groups, reportedly called on the government “to act against mob rule and to allow citizens more democratic space for open dialogue.”

T. Mohan, youth coordinator of the Malaysian Indian Congress, a party within the ruling coalition, told online news agency Malaysiakini on Monday (Aug. 11), “[The protestors] should have come out with their proposals in addressing the issue of non-Muslim husbands who abandon their spouses and their families and convert into Islam, rather than stop a legitimate forum.”

Dr. Koh Tsu Koon, acting president of Gerakan, a party within the ruling coalition government, was quoted in local media as calling for the government to convene a joint committee of civil and sharia lawyers “to formulate, clarify and rectify procedures related to marriage between Muslims and non-Muslims, conversion, custody of children and burial rituals.”  

Report from Compass Direct News