Several independent United Nations human rights experts on Monday urged the Malaysian Government 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,” the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, stressed in a news release.
“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.”
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, according to the press release.
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, last month, the Court of Appeal unanimously ruled that non-Muslims cannot use “Allah” to refer to God. It 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.
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.”
Also speaking out is Rita Izsák, the Independent Expert on minority issues, who said 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.
“Such actions may present an obstacle to friendly and peaceful relations between faith communities,” she warned.
The Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, Frank La Rue, called on the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Malaysian Government to take steps to immediately secure the right to freedom of opinion and expression of the newspaper and withdraw unconditionally from further litigation on this issue.
Independent experts, or special rapporteurs, are appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a country situation or a specific human rights theme. The positions are honorary and the experts are not UN staff, nor are they paid for their work.