Page last updated at 21:08 GMT, Thursday, 5 November 2009

Faith Diary: Whose God is Allah?

By Robert Pigott
Religious Affairs correspondent

Malaysian Muslims pray at a mosque in Kuala Lumpur (file photo)
Roughly two thirds of Malaysia's population is Muslim

Religion can be a tense affair in Malaysia.

Roughly two thirds of the population is Muslim, and religious minorities have repeatedly accused the government of undermining their rights.

The interception by Malaysian authorities of thousands of Bibles bound for Christians in the country has produced the latest flashpoint.

The reason - the Bibles use the word Allah to describe God, and that's been banned by the government.

It says the risk of causing upset to Muslims is too great.

Muslim groups claim that Christian use of a word so closely associated with Islam in Bibles and children's books could be aimed at winning converts.

Religion is closely associated with ethnicity in Malaysia, with ethnic Malays obliged to be Muslim.

Ethnic Indians and Chinese who practise Hinduism and Buddhism are welcome to convert to Islam, but Muslims are not allowed to adopt another faith.

The Malaysian government confiscated 5,000 Bibles earlier this year as they were imported from Indonesia, and it has now intercepted another 10,000.

But Christian leaders - representing a little under 10% of the population - say Malays have been using the word Allah to refer generally to God for hundreds of years.

Christians are now fighting back.

An Evangelical church launched a legal action in an attempt to win the right to refer to God as Allah in children's books.

The Roman Catholic Church has also gone to court after its newspaper in Malaysia was threatened with the loss of its licence if it continued to use the word.

Christians are turning the issue into one about how minorities are treated in Malaysia.

The Christian Federation of Malaysia says the country's constitution guarantees freedom of religion, and it's asking whether that can still be meaningful if Christians are denied Bibles which use their own language.


When the treatment of Christian minorities in Muslim-majority countries becomes an issue, Christian-majority countries are apt to compare it unfavourably with the equality they give to Muslims.

Mahmud Mosque, Zurich
There are about 100 mosques across Switzerland

But strict equality - at least in the architectural arena - is up for debate in one Christian-majority country: Switzerland.

Later this month the Swiss will vote in a referendum on whether to ban the construction of minarets in the country.

The proposal came from right-of-centre groups and is backed by Switzerland's biggest political party, the far-right Swiss People's Party.

There are about 100 mosques serving some 300,000 Swiss Muslims and small minarets are not unknown - although they're not used for calls to prayer.

Muslims have found allies among Switzerland's Jewish population, who have claimed that the plan would threaten religious harmony and hold up the integration of Muslims.

As in Malaysia, the constitution is being invoked by opponents of the proposal.

The two largest Jewish groups said the referendum infringed religious freedom, a concept enshrined in the Swiss constitution.


Part of the Swiss People's Party's argument against minarets is that they are a symbol of political power - more than they are about religion.

Now with a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights against the use of crucifixes in Italian schools, the same claim is being made for this symbol of Christianity.

Soile Lautsi wants to give her children a secular education and objected to the presence of a crucifix in every classroom at their school in northern Italy.

A law dating back to the 1920s requires crucifixes to be hung in Italian schools.

The European Court said the compulsory display of a symbol of a given religion in public buildings violated the rights of parents to educate their children as they wished.

Italian classroom (file photo)
A law from the 1920s requires crucifixes to be hung in Italian schools

The ruling has produced an angry response from politicians and church leaders who say the crucifix is much more than a religious symbol in Italy.

Education Minister Mariastella Gelmini said the crucifix was a "symbol of our tradition", not a mark of Catholicism.

The Reverend Frederico Lombardi said the European court should not interfere in what was a profoundly Italian issue, and said it was wrong to imply that the crucifix could be a sign of division or exclusion.

Soile Lautsi's case is similar to one brought in 1995 by a parent in the German state of Bavaria.

A German constitutional court decided it was against religious freedom for crucifixes to be imposed in classrooms.

The Bavarian parliament came up with a new law, requiring the removal of crucifixes - but only if a parent insisted.

The US Supreme Court has also had to decide whether religious symbols break the constitution, and its separation of church and state.

It recently ruled against the positioning of framed copies of the 10 Commandments in two courtrooms in Kentucky, because they had a "predominantly religious purpose".

However, the court did acknowledge that even the 10 Commandments - taken from the Book of Exodus in the Bible - could be displayed, if it was done to illustrate the country's legal history.

It said a monument outside a government building in Texas could continue to display the Commandments, which the Bible describes being given to Moses by God.

But even without court rulings some Italian Christians suspect that long-established traditions are under threat by the changing atmosphere.

Among the casualties, they complain that schools are abandoning nativity plays for fear of offending people from other faiths.

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