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 


After nearly two and half years in jail, elderly men’s 10-year sentences overturned.

ISTANBUL, April 21 (Compass Direct News) – After more than two years in a Pakistani jail, two elderly Christian men convicted of “blasphemy” against the Quran were acquitted on Thursday (April 16) when a high court in Lahore overturned their 10-year sentence.

James Masih, 67, and Buta Masih, 72, were accused of burning pages from the Quran in October 2006 and were also tried under an anti-terrorism law because their actions were deemed to have created fear and panic. In a case that drew crowds of Islamic fanatics, they were convicted on Nov. 25, 2006 of blaspheming Islam’s sacred book.

The pair has claimed from the start that the blasphemy charges were fabricated due to a dispute over a plot of land that a Muslim neighbor wanted James Masih to sell.

“It happens many times, it is always a false story due to some other enmity,” said Father Yaqub Yousaf, the men’s parish priest. “Pastors and priests, we tell them that it is better not to speak on religion with the Muslims, not to say anything that can hurt them, so normally they don’t do that.”

After rumors erupted that the two men had burned pages of the Quran on Oct. 8, 2006, some 500 Muslims attempted to kill them. Police arrested the two Christians and held off the crowds, which stayed outside the police station through the night.

The Christian men launched an appeal soon after their conviction and have since remained in prison.

“I appeared in court 27 times during the appeal,” said Khalil Tahir Sindhu, their lawyer. “Most of the time the judges postponed the case, saying, ‘We will hear the case next time.’”

Sindhu told Compass that religious bias and public pressure led to the judge’s original decision to sentence the men and could have had much to do with the delays in hearing the appeal.

“At the last hearing [Dec. 15, 2008], the judge reserved judgment, which according to law has to be given within three months,” he said. “But it was over three months, so I went to court and told him, ‘These are old men and they are sick, so please announce the judgment.’”

James Masih was hospitalized three times during his internment, receiving treatment for a chest infection.

“Jail is totally different [in Pakistan], you hardly have proper food, and no facilities,” said Fr. Yousaf. Sources said both men were traumatized by their ordeal, an effect also felt keenly by their families, who were rarely able to visit.


Permanent Stigma

Articles 295-B and 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code respectively prescribe life imprisonment for desecrating the Quran and death for insulting Muhammad, the prophet of Islam.

Although the law has not been implemented to the full extent of capital punishment or life in prison since its introduction in 1986, there have been more than 20 deaths recorded in blasphemy-related violence.

Even after their acquittal and release, Sindhu said, the men will not be able to immediately return home.

“It is dangerous now, we will not send them to their home,” said Sindhu. “We will keep them away for one to two months until the situation changes. Anyone can kill them.”

Christians previously accused of blasphemy continued to experience prejudice and sometimes violence even after being cleared of the charges.

“It is difficult for the blasphemy accused to find work,” commented Wasim Muntizar from the Lahore-based Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement. “Churches are afraid to help them, because fanatics won’t hesitate to kill the ‘blasphemer’ and attack the church.”

Although the families of James and Buta Masih remain excited at the prospect of the pair’s upcoming return home, Fr. Yousaf has urged them to keep their celebrations muted.

“They are excited, yes, but I told them not to express so strongly their joy about it,” he said. “I requested them to keep it secret, because it may not be safe – some of the Muslims may say the court has not taken the right decision. In the past people have been killed after being acquitted.”

Report from Compass Direct News


Recent Incidents of Persecution

Madhya Pradesh, February 27 (Compass Direct News) – Police on Feb. 25 arrested the Rev. Venkata Rao Paulose in connection with the sale of a book said to hurt the religious feelings of Hindus; the book was sold near a Christian conference Rev. Paulose organized in January in Sanjay Nagar Colony, Anuppur district. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that Rev. Paulose, founder of Pine Mount English Medium School, was directing the conference at the school on Jan. 16-18 while, unknown to him, two persons were selling books near the school compound. Hindu extremists from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Bajrang Dal purchased copies of a book, “Secularism and Hindutva” by M.G. Matthew, and took it to the Chachai police station. There they filed a complaint against Rev. Paulose, pastor of Pentecostal Church of God. At 1 a.m. on Jan. 19, police ordered the pastor to the police station, where he gave a statement saying he didn’t know who was selling books near the conference site; he was reprimanded and released. On Feb. 19, police arrested pastors Kailash Mashih and Sharda Prasad Muthel in Anuppur in connection with the complaint about the book and took them to the Chachai police station. Investigating Officer D.S. Divedi told Compass that the pastors were arrested under Section 295(A) of the Indian Penal Code for “deliberate and malicious acts to outrage religious feelings.” One of the pastors (undisclosed) was put in Shadol district jail, and the other was freed on bail. On Feb. 25, police for unknown reasons again arrested Rev. Paulose in connection with the complaint about the book. An Anuppur district court judge refused to grant him bail, and at press time the pastor of the 150-member church was in jail at the Chachai police station.

Karnataka – Police on Feb. 24 detained two Christian women in Chickmagalur after Hindu extremists filed a complaint of forcible conversion based solely on the women welcoming two new converts into their home. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that the Hindu extremists saw a recent convert to Christianity identified only as Panamma and her daughter visit the home of Christians identified only as Sangamma and K.P. Mary. The Hindu nationalists filed the complaint against Mary and Sangamma at N.R. Pura police station, and the Christian women were in police custody for about two hours. A station officer who goes by only one name, Revannea, told Compass that an inquiry was made into the matter and the two women were released without charges after a warning not to undertake further evangelism. 

Chhattisgarh – Hindu extremists on Feb. 23 disrupted a prayer service in Ambikapur, accused the pastors of forceful conversion, beat them and damaged motorcycles. A Compass contact said pastor Joseph Toppa was leading the prayer meeting at the house of Parmeshwar Lakda when the Hindu extremists barged in at about 7 p.m. The extremists belonged to the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarhi Parishad (student wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party), Dharm Sena (Religious Army) and Dharm Jagran Manch (Religious Awakening Forum), all affiliated with the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Police arrived and, as is customary in India, arrested the victims; officers took about 30 Christians to the police station. Local Christian leaders intervened, and the Christians were released at about 11:30 p.m. after giving their statements. There were no serious injuries.

Andhra Pradesh – On Feb. 22 Hindu extremists led by a village leader barged into the Sunday worship meeting of a church in Ranga Reddy, attacked a pastor and demanded that he turn the property over to them. Led by village head Rokalbanda Ramulu, the intolerant Hindus arrived at about 11 a.m. and beat the pastor, tearing his shirt. About six policemen arrived at the spot and brought the situation under control. Pastor K. Krupanamdam of True Wine Church filed a police complaint. Two officers have been posted to protect the church, but no First Information Report was filed.

Chhattisgarh – Police on Feb. 17 arrested 11 pastors from the Believers Church in Sarguja under Chhattisgarh’s anti-conversion law after Hindu extremists stormed into their revival meeting and beat them. The Evangelical Fellowship of India reported that Hindu extremists led by the local legislative assembly member from the Hindu extremist Bharatiya Janata Party, Renuka Singh, arrived at about 7 p.m. and attacked the pastors, tore Bibles and banners and damaged the sound system. The pastors were bruised but reported no serious injuries. The Christians were conducting the meeting with prior permission of the police and the civil administration. Police intervened at about 11 p.m. after persistent calls from local Christian leaders. As is customary in India, authorities took the victims of the violence to the police station “for security measures” but ended up filing charges against them under unsubstantiated claims of forceful conversion. The pastors were released on bail on Feb. 18.

Andhra Pradesh – Hindu extremists on Feb. 14 attacked a Christian media team, accused them of forceful conversion and threatened to kill them in Kawadipally, Ranga Reddy district. Moses Vatipalli of the All Indian Christian Council told Compass that three Christians identified as K. Anand Kumar, Mudi Jacob and Swami Das were distributing gospel tracts when about 15 Hindu hardliners attacked them. The intolerant Hindus assaulted the Christians, tore the remaining gospel tracts, damaged their vehicle and threatened to kill them if they did not leave the village immediately. The Christians were badly bruised but reported no serious injuries. A complaint was filed at Hayath Nagar police station, but no arrests had been made at press time.

Karnataka – Hindu extremists on Feb. 3 burned a Christian’s house and threatened to build a Hindu temple on his land in Tumpur. According to a local source, about 15 extremists went to the house of the Christian, identified only as Dasappa, on Feb. 1 and insisted that the area member of the legislative assembly was asking for the site for a Hindu temple. Dasappa refused, saying that the land was legally owned by his son, and the extremists asserted that there was no place for Christians in the area. On Feb. 3, the Hindu extremists went to his house again, splashed gas on it and burned it to ashes. Local Christian leaders filed a complaint, but police refused to register a case.

Karnataka – A group of Hindu extremists from the Bajrang Dal on Feb. 2 attacked a Christian truck driver in the Deralakatte area on the outskirts of the Mangalore. The Hindu newspaper reported that the extremists beat Albert D’Souza, 48, with iron rods after he found them breaking the windshield of his Jeep and marring the Christian stickers on it. D’Souza was brought to a city hospital in critical condition, the report stated. Konaje police registered a case, saying the attack was communally motivated, and arrested three of the five persons believed to be responsible for the assault.

Karnataka – Police on Jan. 27 arrested a pastor in Bangalore for alleged fraudulent conversion after Hindu extremists who assaulted him filed charges. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that about 30 Hindu extremists led by Shiva Rame barged into the house of pastor G. Kiran Kumar of Bethesda Church and accused him of trying to convert children by luring them with free tuition and asserting that he had insulted Hindu deities. The extremists assaulted the pastor and his father and dragged them to the Vidyaranyapura police station. Surrounding the police station, they bullied officers into arresting the Christians, with pastor Kumar charged under sections 503 and 153(A) of the Indian Penal Code for “criminal intimidation” and “promoting enmity between groups on grounds of religion” respectively. The pastor was released on bail on Jan. 31.

Karnataka – Hindu extremists on Jan. 27 accused a pastor of conversion by allurement in Belgaum because he offered light refreshments at his house church on Christmas Day. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that when the intolerant Hindus heard that pastor Tanaya Sunder Nayak served the refreshments at a prayer meeting of his house church last Christmas, they filed the complaint and manipulated police into going on a hunt for him. Arrest warrant in hand, police went to the pastor’s house while he was away. Umesh Pangam, area additional superintendent of police, told Compass that after an inquiry police realized there was no basis for the charges and dropped the case.

Assam – A mob of about 600 Hindu extremists from the Kamalabari-Sattara Establishment assaulted Christians on Jan. 24 in Majuli Island, Jorhat. The Indian Catholic reported that about 400 believers from St. Anthony’s church in Mariani had gone to Majuli Island for an ordination ceremony. Shouting anti-Christian slogans, the Hindu extremists stopped the Christians as they were en route home, accused them of forcible conversion and threatened to cut them to pieces, according to the newspaper. The Hindu mob asserted that Christians should never enter their area, where a temple affiliated with the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is located. The violent mob kicked and punched the Christians, including women and children. Pulling the Christians’ ears, they forced them to walk barefoot to Ferry Ghat five kilometers (nearly three miles) away. Civil administration officials intervened after a priest informed them of the incident and arranged transportation to assist the Christians home. Alan Brooks, spokesman of the Assam Christian Forum, told Compass that Christians filed a First Information Report in Kamalabari and Jarmukh police stations, but no arrests were made.

Kerala – Hindu extremists from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh on Jan. 22 assaulted a pastor and beat him till he fell unconscious in Vaithiry. According to the Evangelical Fellowship of India, pastor T.T. Abraham of the Brethren Assembly Church was distributing gospel tracts when three intolerant Hindus stopped him. In the assault the pastor suffered serious injuries on his neck, stomach and back. The Hindu extremists fled the scene when they saw an approaching auto-rickshaw, and the driver took the pastor to a government hospital. No police complaint was filed, as the pastor said he chose to forgive the extremists.  

Report from Compass Direct News