A Malaysian appeals court on Monday upheld a government ban against the use of the word "Allah" to refer to non-Muslim faiths' God, rejecting claims by Christians in the Muslim-majority nation that the restriction violates their religious rights.
The judgment in the Court of Appeals overturned a decision by a lower court that ruled against the government ban nearly four years ago. Anger over that ruling triggered a series of arson attacks and vandalism at Malaysian churches and other places of worship.
The Arabic word "Allah" is commonly used in the Malay language to refer to God by Christians in Malaysia, as it is in other languages in parts of the Muslim world. But the Malaysian government insists that "Allah" should be reserved for the country's 60% Muslim majority out of concerns that its use by others would confuse Muslims and could be used to convert them.
Conversion from Islam to other religions is difficult but not impossible under Malaysian law, but proselytizing by Christians is effectively forbidden and can lead to jail sentences.
Although religious freedom is guaranteed by Malaysian law, the country's Christian, Buddhist and Hindu minorities have long complained that the government infringes on their constitutional right to practice religion freely — accusations the government denies.
The legal dispute stems from efforts by The Herald, the newspaper of the Roman Catholic Church in Malaysia, to use "Allah" in its Malay-language weekly publication.
Representatives of the Catholic Church deny attempts to convert Muslims and say the government ban is unreasonable because Christians who speak the Malay language had long used the word "Allah" in their Bibles, literature and songs before authorities sought to enforce the curb in recent years.
Judge Mohamed Apandi Ali, who led a three-member appeals-court panel, said the use of the word "Allah" was "not an integral part of the faith and practice of Christianity."
"It is our judgment that there is no infringement of any constitutional rights" in the ban, he said. "We could find no reason why the (Catholic newspaper) is so adamant to use the word 'Allah' in their weekly. Such usage, if allowed, will inevitably cause confusion within the community."
The Rev. Lawrence Andrew, editor of The Herald, said the publication plans to appeal the ruling in Malaysia's Federal Court, the nation's highest.
"We are greatly disappointed and dismayed," he said. "This is unrealistic. It is a retrograde step in the development of law in relation to the fundamental liberty of religious minorities."
Though Islam is the state religion in Malaysia, about 20% of its 27 million people are Buddhist, 9% Christian and 6% Hindu. The country has two parallel court systems: an Islamic Shariah court and a secular one, which can overrule decisions from the Shariah court.
The Associated Press