A court in October barred a Malaysian Catholic newspaper from using “Allah” to refer to the Christian God in its Malay-language edition — a verdict which was welcomed by Muslim conservatives but which sparked concern among Christians, a minority in the multi-faith country.
After the verdict, Prime Minister Najib Razak, walking a tightrope between pleasing his conservative Muslim ethnic Malay base without alienating non-Muslim minorities, assured Christians the practice of their religion would not be threatened.
But Islamic officials from the central state of Selangor on Thursday seized 16 boxes containing more than 300 Bibles from the Bible Society of Malaysia, said the society’s president Lee Min Choon.
Lee said he and a colleague were also detained “under a state law, which prohibits the use of the word Allah by non-Muslims”. They were later released but must meet authorities again next week.
Most of the seized Bibles — imported from neighbouring Indonesia where Malay is also spoken — were in Malay. A few were in Iban, a language spoken by one of the country’s indigenous groups.
“We have been using them (the Bibles) ever since the society started (in 1985), and even before that,” Lee told AFP. “This is the first time we have been raided.”
Officials from the Selangor Islamic Religious Department did not immediately return a request for comment.
The Council of Churches of Malaysia said in a statement it was “alarmed” by the raid and urged the government to “protect religious rights as provided under the Federal Constitution”.
The dispute over the use of “Allah” by non-Muslims erupted in early 2009, when the Home Ministry threatened to revoke the publishing permit of the Catholic newspaper the Herald for using the word.
Authorities said using “Allah” in non-Muslim literature could confuse Muslims and entice them to convert.
The Catholic Church sued, claiming violation of its constitutional rights.
The church says the word “Allah” is the most accurate translation for “God” and has been used for decades in Malaysia and elsewhere.
A court upheld the church’s argument later that year and lifted the ban. But a higher court overturned that ruling in October, reinstating the ban.
The ban’s removal had triggered a series of attacks on churches and other places of worship in early 2010, using Molotov cocktails, rocks and paint, and sparked fears of wider religious conflict.
Muslims make up 60 percent of the country’s 28 million people, while Christians account for about nine percent.
Malaysia has largely avoided overt religious conflict in recent decades, but tensions have slowly risen along with what many see as an increasing Islamisation of the country.