Attacks on churches have stoked the flames of religious intolerance
The Bangkok Post
As evening approaches, life in the Malaysian capital blossoms and bustles on the streets in and around Bukit Bintang. Here the catch-phrase that sold a country to the world - "Malaysia Truly Asia" - has found a home.
Malays, Chinese and Indians mix easily with tourists and expatriates from Africa, the Middle East and the West. Muslims mingle with Christians. Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs are plentiful.
Everybody eats at the same table.
Among them is Father Lawrence Andrew, an urbane man of the cloth who divides his time between journalism and tending the spiritual needs of his flock, from his office behind St Anthony's Catholic Church.
He is rarely flustered and holds the same smile he wore when meeting Pope John Paul II. A photo hangs on the wall behind his desk.
However, Father Andrew's patience, along with the vast majority of Malaysians - regardless of creed - has been sorely tested in recent days by a spate of fire-bombings that erupted amid government efforts to ban non-Muslims from using the word Allah.
"It is unfortunate, it is irresponsible and there is no respect for the rights and property of others," he says.
"They should approach the proper channels and not flex their muscles on the people. It is becoming the law of the jungle right now and they should stop this."
As editor of the weekly Catholic newspaper The Herald, Father Andrew has led the legal fight against a three-year government ban on the use of the word Allah for God by non-Muslims.
The use of three other words - Kaabah for Islam's holiest shrine in Mecca, Solat meaning prayer and Baitullah, or House of God - were also banned under the literary laws.
The ban was imposed on The Herald when its annual publishing licence was renewed amid claims use of the words could lead to confusion and conversions among members of the Islamic faith.
Court challenges followed and Father Andrew was confident. The ban, he says, defeats logic.
Then on New Year's Eve the High Court ruled in his favour and overturned the law.
The vast majority of people were delighted, the Home Ministry was irritated, and hard line Islamic elements outraged.
Nine Christian Churches and a school have since been fire-bombed or vandalised, a Sikh temple - where the word Allah is also used - was stoned, law offices for the Catholic Church have been burgled and ransacked and the High Court has suspended its verdict pending an appeal.
Father Andrew says the word Allah is part and parcel of religious teachings within Christian churches around the world. It was introduced to the Malay Peninsula and Borneo just over 370 years ago by Arabic traders when no other word for God existed there.
This held particular ramifications for Malay-speaking indigenous tribes living in Sabah and Sarawak on Borneo, who are the main readers of The Herald's Malay-language edition.
Catholic officials say "Allah" is still the only word they know for God.
"We have been using this word for centuries. It is not a new word. It is not something we have just thought about. So that's why we say that it is not so much a question of language here," he said, while producing a Dutch-Malay-Latin dictionary published in 1631 using the word Allah for God.
"It is also a cultural heritage of our Christian people that has been challenged by prohibiting us from using the word Allah," he said. "There is no precedent about us trying to manipulate or cheat people."
He says fundamentalists within and close to government who claim the word could be used by Christians to induce conversions are wrong.
"I do not see how we are a force against the government. No, we are collaborating with the government, but there are some elements in the government and some zealots outside who think we are trying to convert. Certainly not."
Father Andrew says it is against the law for any religion to interfere with the internal affairs of another, However, Muslim groups consistently and actively attempt to convert believers of other faiths.
Such behaviour is also questionable under the constitution.
"There have been Malays who came to me and said: 'Father I want to become a Christian - baptise me.' And my answer to them is: 'No way, we will not baptise you. You know the law of the country. We cannot convert you.'
"Now this law of the country has been in existence for 50 years, and it is part of the constitution and we wouldn't want to go against this constitution."
About 60% of Malaysia's 28 million people are Malay Muslims, while the rest are ethnic Chinese, Indians and indigenous tribes. The minorities follow Christianity, Hinduism and other religions.
Malaysia has kept racial tensions under control since race riots hit the country in the late 1960s.
However, in the past few years, minorities have increasingly complained of government discrimination and that their constitutional right to practise religion freely has come under threat. They argue that the nation's Sharia court, which rules on family matters for Muslims, is unfair to them.
Disputes in recent years have involved the demolition of Hindu temples illegally built on state-owned land and the seizure of Malay-language bibles. The government denies any discrimination.
The first-floor office in the three-storey Metro Tabernacle Church was worst hit, destroyed in a blaze a little after midnight. There were no injuries in any of the attacks.
Police have urged Muslims not to take part in planned street demonstrations. Protests by Christians in Sabah were called off because of fears of a government crackdown and claims that police were being dispatched in force.
Deputy Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Ismail Omar said the images of several men who set fire to the Metro Tabernacle Church at Taman Melewati were captured on a close-circuit TV camera.
"We now have leads to the case. We have the physical attributes of the suspects and hope it can help us trace them, although more accurate information is needed," he said, adding police believed the men were acting on their own accord and did not represent any particular group.
However, he also complained that witnesses were not coming forward but were reporting their accounts on blogs and social networking websites like Facebook.
Ronnie Klassen, a spokesman for opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim in Sabah, was an organiser of the planned protest. He said there were genuine fears for the safety of the demonstrators.
"We decided to call it off because of the two to three hundred people that were there, there were many elderly people around and we felt that we didn't want any one of the elderly people to be injured or anything of that sort."
Meanwhile Tan Kong Beng, the Executive Secretary of the Christian Federation of Malaysia, added that Malaysian Christians were expecting change in Malaysia, but on a positive note.
"They want to see a better Malaysia for their children and that means better relationships among the various religions, specifically with Islam," he said.
Father Andrew says Muslim elements within the government were trying to bolster their influence by attempting to assert Islam over the diverse ethnic and religious mix that makes up Malaysia.
"We can call them Zealots, but I think we have to take a step back."
The United Malay National Organisation (UMNO), which has controlled political life in Malaysia since independence, has suffered a reduced majority in parliament and waning public support.Read more.