Malaysia’s High Court ruled this week that Christians can now use the word “Allah” in reference to God.
The court granted Jill Ireland Lawrence Bill, a Christian from Sarawak, to use the word “Allah” in her religious practice.
In 2008, Bill filed a legal challenge before the court after the Malaysian government confiscated her educational compact discs containing the word “Allah.”
The CDs were only returned to Bill in 2015, seven years after the legal challenge when a Malaysian Court ruled that the seizure of Bill’s personal belongings was unlawful.
The decision, however, on the constitutional points raised by Bill, including her right to use the word “Allah” for religious practices, was decided only on March 10.
“The court has now said the word Allah can be used by all Malaysians,” said Bill’s lawyer, Annou Xavier, in an Associated Press report.
He said the decision “entrenches the fundamental freedom of religious rights for non-Muslims” in Malaysia Constitution.
The court decision nullified the 35-year-old government ban on non-Muslims to use the Islamic word in religious publications.
In 1986, the Malaysian Home Ministry banned the use of “Allah” in Christian publications, citing a threat to public order.
Malaysian Christians, especially those who speak the Malay language, defended that they have long used “Allah,” a word derived from Arabic, in their Bibles, prayers and songs.
The ban has led to seizures of several Christian publications, and three court challenges, including a case filed by The Herald, a Catholic Weekly, which was banned from using “Allah.”
The Herald, however, was unsuccessful in its legal challenge in 2013, after the courts supported the government’s ban.
Justice Datuk Nor Bee Ariffin noted in her ruling that the “ministry had exceeded its powers with the order” and that such prohibition was against the Constitution.
“There is no such power to restrict religious freedom… Religious freedom is absolutely protected even in times of threat to public order,” the justice said.
The courts also allowed the usage of other words like “kaabah,” which is Islam’s holiest shrine in Mecca, “baitullah,” or house of God, and “solat,” meaning prayer.
Government counsel Shamsul Bolhassan said that the four words can now be used in Christian materials as long as there is a disclaimer that says it is intended for Christians only and a symbol of a cross is displayed.
The controversy on the usage of Islamic words by non-Muslims has resulted in violence in Malaysia.
In 2010, 11 churches and five mosques were burned or vandalized after a lower court ruled in favor of the rights of the non-Muslims to use “Allah” in 2009.
The ruling was subsequently overturned by higher courts.
Currently, there is another ongoing legal challenge on the “Allah” ban filed by the Borneo Evangelical Church.
It remains to be seen if the legal challenge would continue after the major decision declared the government ban unconstitutional.