An 'Allah' ban in Malaysia

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A Malaysian court will decide tomorrow whether a Catholic newspaper can challenge a government ban on non-Muslims using the term ?allah? in their publications to refer to God. Jennifer Pak has the story from Kuala Lumpur.

KATY CLARK: I'm Katy Clark and this is The World. A Malaysian court is set to hand down a ruling tomorrow that's bound to be controversial. The case involves a government ban on the use of the term "Allah" to describe God in Christian publications. A Catholic newspaper is challenging that ban, and the High Court in Malaysia is set to decide whether the case can go forward. Jennifer Pak has more from Kuala Lumpur.

JENNIFER PAK: Two years of legal battle and the stack of documents on Father Lawrence Andrew's desk is still growing.

FATHER ANDREW: They're telling is we cannot use the word "Allah."

PAK: Since 2008, Malaysia's Home Ministry began renewing the Catholic newspaper's permit to publish on the condition that it stop using the term "Allah" to refer to God. But Father Andrew says the Catholic Church in Malaysia has been using the term Allah for ages. It even appears in Malay Bibles.

FATHER ANDREW: It is even now being used still in our Church's worship and also in our conversation in describing God in the Malay language. So all of a sudden midstream, what do you do? And our children are going to be confused.

PAK: But the government maintains it's Muslims who will be confused and angered by Christians using the name "Allah." The government has suggested the church use Tohan, which they say is another word for God in the Malay language. The dispute has become emblematic of growing tensions in Malaysia. Over half of the population are Malay Muslims with large Chinese with large Chinese and Indian communities who are mainly Christian, Buddhist and Hindus. Many Muslim activists here are suspicious of the Catholic Church's motives. Mohamad Azmi Abdul Hamid with the Muslim group Teras says this issue goes beyond the translation of a word.

MOHAMAD HAMID: It strikes a nerve of Muslims that, you know, there is something that has a kind of agenda behind it, and the feeling is very strong.

PAK: Malaysia's constitution guarantees freedom of religion as long as it doesn't encroach on Islam. Some Muslim groups here believe that Christians want to use the word Allah as part of a plan to encourage Muslims to convert to Christianity. That's actually illegal in Malaysia. But Professor Osman Bakar with the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies Malaysia says it's not clear that's even happening.

PROFESSOR BAKAR: The point is we don't know what is the extent of the number of Muslims leaving Islam for different reasons, including wanting to become Christians.

PAK: The whole issue of conversion and religious identity is a sensitive issue here. Zaid Kamaruddin is with the Islamic Reform Society of Malaysia. He supports the government's ban on the word Allah by non-Muslims, but he's hesitant to talk about it.

ZAID KAMARUDDIN: Issues like this I feel that we need to be very, very careful.

PAK: He says though Muslims are perceived to be favored by the Malay-dominated government, they're constantly struggling for their rights. In fact, Zaid says he sympathizes with the Catholic Church's lawsuit, though ultimately he disagrees with it. Back at the Catholic newspaper's headquarters, Father Andrew is optimistic they can overturn the government's ban on the word Allah.

FATHER ANDREWS: I believe that this will be the year we will have it.

PAK: Father Andrew says he is prepared to take the case to Malaysia's highest court. One way or another, both sides say they're in it for the long haul. For the World, I'm Jennifer Pak in Kuala Lumpur.