An Islamic religious authority raided the Bible Society of Malaysia on Thursday and confiscated dozens of Bibles in the Malay and Iban languages because they contained the word “Allah,” which Muslims argue is exclusive to Islam.
The move sparked outrage among the minority Christian community.
The newly-appointed director of the Selangor state Islamic Religious Department, Ahmad Zaharin Mohamed Saad, said recently he wanted churches to obey a law that bans non-Muslims from using 35 Arabic words and phrases including “Allah”, “nabi” (prophet) and “injil” (gospel).
In Malaysia, proselytising to a Muslim is a criminal offence.
A team of officers from the religious department, aided by the police, seized 320 copies of the Bible and detained the society’s president Lee Min Choon and manager Sinclair Wong.
Both Lee and Wong were released later on police bail.
Speaking to reporters outside the police station, Lee called for calm and said he would hold talks with the department’s senior officers next week.
He said the society had previously received assurances from the government that Malay-language Bibles could be imported from Indonesia.
“We are allowed to freely distribute the Bibles in Sabah and Sarawak without any conditions,” he said.
As for distribution in West Malaysia, he added, “As long as the Bible has a cross and the words ‘Christian publication’ on the cover, it can be freely imported and distributed to Christians.” The Council of Churches Malaysia (CCM) expressed alarm over the raid.
“CCM believes the Islamic authorities do not have the authority in law to enter the premises of non-Muslim religious establishments for inspection, search or raid,” its general-secretary Hermen Shastri said in a statement.
He urged Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak and the Selangor state Chief Minister Khalid Ibrahim to intervene and stop further raids.
Christians comprise some 10 per cent of the country’s population of 29 million. The religion is practised mainly by the minority ethnic Chinese, Indians and the indigenous tribes in Sabah and Sarawak in Borneo. The Malay-language Bibles are widely used by Christians in Borneo while Iban is the largest ethnic group in Sarawak.
The tussle over the use of the word “Allah” by Christians led to several churches being torched and stoned in 2010 following a court ruling allowing the Christians the right to use the word. That ruling has since been overturned by a higher court.