Eight churches have been attacked over three days amid a dispute over the use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims, sparking fresh political instability that is denting Malaysia's image.
The unprecedented attacks have set off a wave of disquiet among Malaysia's minority Christians and strained their ties with the majority Malay Muslims. About 9 percent of Malaysia's 28 million people are Christians, most of whom are ethnic Chinese or Indian.
Muslims make up 60 percent of the population and most are ethnic Malays.
The attacks were a blow to racial unity espoused by Prime Minister Najib Razak under his “One Malaysia” slogan since taking power in April, and posed a headache for him as he seeks to strengthen his ruling coalition after its losses in 2008 general elections.
“It showed that, after 52 years of living together, nation building and national unity is in tatters,” said Charles Santiago, an opposition Member of Parliament. “The church attacks shattered notions of Malaysia as a model secular Muslim nation in the eyes of the international community.
“Malaysians are now living in fear of a racial clash following the church attacks and rising orthodox Islamic tones in the country,” Mr. Santiago said.
Many Muslims are angry about a Dec. 31 High Court decision overturning a government ban on Roman Catholics' using “Allah” to refer to their God in the Malay-language edition of their main newspaper, the Herald.
The ruling also applies to the ban's broader applications such as Malay-language Bibles, 10,000 copies of which were recently seized by authorities because they translated God as Allah. The government has appealed the verdict.
Firebombs were thrown at seven churches nationwide since Friday, with another splashed with black paint. No one was hurt and all suffered little damage, except the Metro Tabernacle Church in a Kuala Lumpur suburb, which had its office on the first floor gutted by fire.
Analysts said the line between race and religion in Malaysia is slowly eroding.
“There has been a gradual merging of Malay identity with Islam. Malaysia is heading toward dangerous waters,'' said James Chin, political science lecturer at Monash University in Malaysia.
“Minorities are under siege and feel they don't have a place in Malaysia anymore,” he said.
Malaysia's ruling coalition, the National Front, is dominated by UMNO, which is made up exclusively of Malay Muslims. The Front narrowly won general elections in 2008, but it was its worst performance after five decades of political dominance since Malaysia won independence in 1957.
Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim blamed the church attacks on the UMNO-led government's “incessant racist propaganda” over the Allah issue and inflammatory rhetoric issued by state-controlled mainstream media.
Even Razaleigh Hamzah, a veteran UMNO member, has criticized UMNO for “digging itself into an intolerant hard-line position” in a bid to woo voters after its election losses.
“UMNO is fanning communal sentiment, and the government it leads is taking up policy lines based on sensitivities rather than principle,” he said.
The Allah ban is unusual in the Muslim world. The Arabic word is commonly used by Christians to describe God in such countries as Egypt, Syria and Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim nation.
The Herald has been using Allah in its Bahasa Malaysia publication since 1995, but it was not until 2006 that it was warned by the government to stop using Allah to refer to God.
Despite the attacks, thousands of Christians nationwide attended Sunday services and prayed for national unity and an end to the violence.
Men, women and children from the Metro Tabernacle parish assembled Sunday in a cavernous, 1,800-seat meeting hall of the Malaysian Chinese Association party for the service.
Government leaders and many Muslims have condemned the firebombings, saying it is un-Islamic to attack places of worship.
Mr. Najib visited the Metro Tabernacle church late Saturday and announced a grant of 500,000 ringgit for rebuilding it at a new location.
“It's been a difficult weekend for all. I share your outrage. We must stand united and not allow these incidents to break us,” Mr. Najib wrote on his twitter account, NajibRazak.
The Rev. Hermen Shastri, general secretary of the Council of Churches of Malaysia, said Christians won't be intimidated by the attacks, describing them as the work of an extremist minority among Muslims.