Archbiship John Ha: Federal Government Has Competence To Rescind Ban On Use Of The Word “Allah”

Like all Heads of Churches – and for that matter, like most, if not all Christians – I am very disappointed by and deeply concerned over the implications of the Federal Court’s decision not to grant leave to the Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur to bring the “Herald case” (the ban of the use of the term “Allah” by the Herald) to the Federal Court.

Nonetheless, there is the consolation that the decision was not unanimous. Three of the seven judges on the panel gave a dissenting decision.

This fact indicates that there are cogent grounds for the decision to be reviewed by another panel of the Federal Court.

A lot of dissatisfaction was voiced with the judgement of the Court of Appeal that overturned the earlier judgement given by a lower court in favour of the Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur. Primarily, this dissatisfaction arose from what was perceived as “flaws” in the reasons for the judgement by the Court of Appeal. Granting leave for the case to be taken to the Federal Court would have provided a golden opportunity for these important reasons revolving around constitutional rights and protection for freedom of religion in our Country to be fully articulated before the highest Court for its resolution.

As the Catholic Lawyers Society has rightly pointed out, the leave would have been an opportunity to interpret Article 11 (1) and (3) of the Federal Constitution with respect to the rights of non-Muslim communities in Malaysia to practise their religion.

In my personal view, bearing in mind the degree of public importance of legal issues raised, granting leave to enable such critical issues to be expounded fully would have been an opportune occasion to contribute to a greater public confidence, or if not, at least to reduce the loss of it, in our judicial system. It is lamentable that the opportunity has been lost.

The Government was quick to point out that the court case concerned only the Herald and on the basis of the “10-point solution”, assure that Malaysian Christians were free to call their God “Allah” in churches. This 10-point solution is the way forward for our Country. For it to work fully, without question or misunderstanding, the ban imposed on the Herald must be lifted.

The legal implication of the Judgement of the Court of Appeal is that its decision applies to the use of the word nation-wide and under all circumstances. The majority decision of the Federal Court leaves this Judgement of the Court of Appeal intact and therefore the ban is still on. A confusing situation is thus created: on one hand the nation-wide ban is still on, on the other hand there is assurance that it is only confined to the Herald.

The ban is a Ministerial Order or executive decision. The Federal Government has the competence to rescind it. I pray and appeal to the Federal Government to do that so that the 10-point solution can be implemented without hindrance and our Nation can move on.

With the very bold seizure of 321 copies of the Alkitab and Bup Kudus by JAIS and refusal by MAIS to return them, the refusal to grant the Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur may embolden and encourage this high-handed and very disrespectful action by a Muslim body on a non-Muslim organisation – here, the Bible Society of Malaysia. My fear is that the refusal of leave may spiral into a wider sphere than the Herald. It may spill over to the ban of the use of the term Allah by non-Muslims at large, despite the Government’s assurance. Would the Government and all its machinery be able or daring enough to contain this likely spiral, should it happen?

The refusal of leave is tantamount to shutting the case, which is of utmost public importance, without a sound and reasonable debate on the substantive issues in the Federal Court, the apex Court of Malaysia. This only causes a lot of unease and speculation on the matter. A sound judgement on the merits of the case after a full and reasonable debate would help allay such unease and deter people from responding emotionally to these issues. When emotions take the better of us, consequences are often terrible.

The judiciary must not only protect but must be seen to be the body that protects the Constitution and upholds the rights of every citizen without fear or favour. It is my humble view that granting leave to the Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur to bring the Herald case to the Federal Court would have opened a path to a sound debate which will clarify the issues many quarters see as clouding the decision of the Court of Appeal and more importantly the interpretation of the Federal Constitution Article 11 (1) and (3).

At its formation, Malaysia was intended to be a democratic nation and a secular state. Over time, so unfortunately, there has been a deviation from this original intention of the founding fathers. Islam is given the special position of being the religion of the Federation but other religions may be practised in peace and harmony. The rights to freely practise one’s religion are guaranteed and firmly entrenched in the Federal Constitution – the supreme law of the Nation. But this Constitutional guarantee seems to have been politicised and the Courts appear to be reluctant to enforce these constitutional safeguards especially in situations where public pressure is evidently exerted by certain groups which do not seem to respect these safeguards for the minorities. Any ban on the use of the term Allah by Christians in any manner is an infringement on the practice of Christianity. Religious freedom for every person is enshrined in our Constitution. I cannot help wondering whether eventually the Constitution will be broken to give way to some fundamentalist quarters who seek to enforce an Islamic way of life for the whole nation. The pressure they exert on the democratically elected Government is strong enough at least to silence the latter, if not make them bow to the demands of these fundamentalist quarters.

I call on all Christians not to panic in the face of the present predicament with regard to the Herald case. For God, there is never a cul-de-sac. He will open a path for us and for the whole nation to move on, as He did when His people had the Egyptian army behind them and the Sea of Reeds in front. For sure, we need to continue to do our part to get the issue in hand resolved and pray God to open a path for us. We are committed to living in peace and harmony with all fellow Malaysians and being respectful towards all ethnic as well as religious communities. For everyone is a creature and child of God. We want to ensure that the rights of all citizens be upheld and protected, especially the right to practise our faith freely. May God bless Malaysia and grant our leaders the wisdom and courage to ensure that the rights of all citizens enshrined in the Federal Constitution be safeguarded. May our judiciary be the body to guarantee justice and protection of the rights of all citizens.

Archbishop John Ha
26 June 2014

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