Three churches in the Malaysian capital were firebombed yesterday as a dispute over non-Muslims using the word "Allah" turned violent, and angry protesters gathered at mosques. Tensions began last week after the Catholic Herald newspaper won a two-year court battle to use the word to describe God in its Malay edition.
The newspaper claims there is no other fitting word in the language, and "Allah" has been used by Malay-speaking Christians to refer to god for decades. But the decision has been met with anger from some members of the country's Malay Muslim majority, who claim the Arabic word, which actually predates Islam, is exclusive to the faith. Malaysia was once upheld as an example of religious harmony because Muslims, who make up about 60 per cent of the population, have coexisted relatively peacefully with ethnic Chinese, a majority of whom are Christian, and Indian Hindu and Buddhist populatio. However, religious tensions have been simmering in recent years.
They have heightened since March, when the government lost a swath of voters who object to its increasingly conservative Islamic message. Yesterday's situation erupted in the early hours of the morning as attackers on motorcycles set the Metro Tabernacle Church alight soon after midnight, leaving it badly damaged. Molotov cocktails were thrown into the grounds of two other churches before dawn, but little damage was done and no one was injured.
Crowds then gathered for rallies outside two of Kuala Lumpur's biggest mosques, and eight others across the nation, but protesters numbered a few hundred, rather than the thousands organisers had predicted. Those opposing the court's decision argue that the use of the word by Christians may confuse Muslims and tempt them to convert. "We will not allow the word Allah to be inscribed in your churches," one speaker shouted into a loudspeaker at the Kampung Bahru mosque, the Associated Press reported.
Others carried signs reading "Allah is only for us" and "Heresy arises from words wrongly used". Arman Azha Abu Hanifah, a protest organiser, told Agence France-Presse: "We have lived in peace with all religions but we want other religions to respect us and the use of the word Allah, which is exclusive to Muslims." Police have tightened security at churches nationwide and some have hired their own security guards.
Security officials are bracing for further protests, but describe the situation as "under control" and denied reports that cars displaying Christian symbols have been attacked. Datuk Seri Najib Razak, the prime minister, condemned the attacks, saying they will "destroy the harmony of the country". The Malaysian court that overturned the order stopping non-Muslims from using the word suspended the decision pending appeal on Wednesday after the government warned that it could cause racial conflict.
The editor of the Herald, Father Lawrence Andrew, said that opportunists have stirred up a climate of fear over the issue in order to force the court to reverse their decision for fear of upsetting national security. Mr Razak was forced yesterday to deny claims that politicians from his party, Umno, which relies on the Malay-Muslim majority's votes to stay in power, were responsible for having fanned tensions. Both Mr Razak and the home minister and Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein have said Muslims should be allowed to protest, and the government has made clear it wants the ban on the use of the word to remain in place.
Protests are usually outlawed when there are fears of religious tensions arising and the opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, from the People's Justice Party, was among those that discouraged people from joining protests. The Herald's Malay edition is read by indigenous tribes in the remote states of Sabah and Sarawak, whose Christian members use the word Allah. The word is also commonly used by Arabic-speaking Christians in much of the Middle East.