Religious tension is rising in Malaysia over the Christian community’s use of the Arabic word ‘Allah’ for its own god. But an opposition politician told RNW that his party is working hard to avoid a repeat of the violence that saw churches attacked last night.
The current dispute arose when the Catholic Herald newspaper published an article using the word Allah, which has traditionally only been applied to the Muslim deity. Last week the Malaysian high court ruled the paper had done nothing wrong, sparking anger in the Muslim community. At least three churches were targeted early Friday morning by petrol bombers. One Pentecostal church was completely burned to the ground. Muslims held peaceful protests at mosques during Friday afternoon prayers.
Government encouraged dissent
Tian Chua, an opposition politician with the People’s Justice Party, says the government made the situation worse by urging Muslims to take to the street in protest against the court’s decision.
“All the opposition parties, including the Islamic Party, condemn such a move, which can pose a serious threat to the harmony of society. We’re afraid that this provocation could create community tension and we also want to avoid any form of violence.”
Malaysia is mainly made up of Muslims and Malays and the government relies on them for support. Around nine percent of the population are Christians - including 800,000 Catholics. In many Arabic-speaking countries Allah is also used to describe the Christian God, but in Malaysia the issue is particularly sensitive. Muslims accuse Christian missionaries of using the word to try and convert people to Christianity.
Test for the Prime Minister
Analysts say the situation is a test for Prime Minister Najib Razak, who has rejected claims that his party, the United Malays National Organisation, was behind the petrol bombing of churches in Kuala Lumpur. Elections are planned for 2013, and his handling of the religious issue will be a key factor in whether he is returned to power, according to Ooi Kee Beng from the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore:
“The ball is now in Najib’s court. All eyes are on him and the home ministry. Will they enforce the rule of law or be seen enforcing the rule of law without fear or favour?”
Tian Chua today visited churches and spoke to pastors, expressing solidarity with Christians and offering support. He added that he didn’t expect any further clashes.
“We are confident the majority of the Muslims in this country are fair-minded and rational and they are not influenced by the ruling party.