The United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, today urged the Government of Malaysia to reverse its decision to ban a Catholic publication from using the word ‘Allah’ to refer to God, warning that the case may have far-reaching implications for religious minorities in the country.
“Freedom of religion or belief is a right of human beings, not a right of the State,” Mr. Bielefeldt stressed. “It cannot be the business of the State to shape or reshape religious traditions, nor can the State claim any binding authority in the interpretation of religious sources or in the definition of the tenets of faith.”
In January 2009, the Ministry of Home Affairs ordered the newspaper Herald-The Catholic Weekly to stop using the word ‘Allah’ or face losing its publication permit. The newspaper argued the ban was unconstitutional and won an appeal in the Malaysian High Court.
However, in October 2013, the Court of Appeal unanimously ruled that non-Muslims cannot use ‘Allah’ to refer to God. The Court of Appeal stated that the usage of the name ‘Allah’ is not an integral part of the faith and practice of Christianity. “Such usage, if allowed, would inevitably cause confusion within the community,” the appeal court judges ruled. The case is currently pending consideration at the Federal Court level.
The Bahasa Malaysia, or standard Malay, translation for one God is ‘Allah’, which entered the language from Arabic and has been used by Christians in the region for many centuries. Mr Bielefeldt cautioned that “the current case may affect the right of all non-Muslims in Malaysia to use the word ‘Allah’ while referring to God.”
UN Independent Expert on minority issues Rita Izsák and UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression Frank La Rue echoed Mr Bielefeldt’s call.
“Discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief constitutes a violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and in this instance is a breach of the rights of a religious minority to freely practice and express their faith as they have done for generations. Such actions may present an obstacle to friendly and peaceful relations between faith communities,” Ms. Izsák said.
“The Ministry of Home Affairs and the Government of Malaysia should take necessary steps to secure immediately the right to freedom of opinion and expression of Herald – The Catholic Weekly and withdraw unconditionally from further litigation on this issue,” Mr La Rue underscored.