Malaysia’s government on Thursday won the right to challenge a court ruling that allowed the country’s non-Muslim minority to use the word “Allah” to refer to God.
Appeal hearings are scheduled to start on Sept. 10 to resolve the politically sensitive dispute that triggered attacks on Malaysian churches and other places of worship more than three years ago.
“Allah” is the Arabic word for God and is commonly used in the Malay language to refer to God.
The government, however, insists “Allah” is an Islamic word and that its use by others would confuse Muslims.
Roman Catholic representatives say the government’s curb on their use of “Allah” is unreasonable because Christians who speak the Malay language have long used the word to refer to God in their Bibles, literature and songs much before authorities sought to enforce the ban in recent years.
A nearly 6-year-old court dispute over the issue stems from efforts by the newspaper of the Roman Catholic Church in Malaysia to use “Allah” in its Malay-language publication.
Malaysia’s Court of Appeals ruled on Thursday that the government has the right to challenge a 2009 verdict by a lower court that permitted the newspaper to use “Allah.”
That earlier verdict sparked a string of arson attacks and vandalism in 11 churches, a Sikh temple, three mosques and two Muslim prayer rooms. The government’s ban remains in effect because of a stay order on the verdict, until the appeals process is completed.
Judge Abu Samah Nordin said on Thursday that the dispute “is still a live issue,” overruling church officials’ contention that an appeal would be unjustified.
More than 100 Muslim activists gathered outside the court, with some shouting “Allahu Akbar,” or “God is great,” after the ruling.
The Rev. Lawrence Andrew, editor of the Catholic newspaper, The Herald, voiced disappointment but said his team would accept the ruling and argue its case next month.
The ban has become a symbol of grievances in Malaysia among Christian, Buddhist and Hindu minorities, who sometimes complain that their constitutional right to practice religion freely is undermined. The government denies any discrimination. Other disputes over the past decade include the demolition of temples illegally built on state-owned land.