For Bumiputera Christians, ‘Allah’ Ban Akin To Cultural ‘Genocide’, Says Archbishop

Putrajaya’s persistence in refusing non-Muslim Malaysians the right to use the word “Allah” is tantamount to the systematic destruction of the language and culture of the Bumiputera community in Sabah and Sarawak, the head of the Anglican Church in Southeast Asia said.

Archbishop Datuk Bolly Lapok said the word “Allah” has been part and parcel of the community’s language for generations and has become “embedded” in every aspect of their culture, including for the Bumiputera Christians, who make up the majority of Malaysia’s Christian population.

However, the government’s prohibition and the Federal Court’s denial for the Catholic Church to appeal for the right to publish the “Allah” in its weekly newspaper, had made the Bumiputera Christians feel they had been wronged, said the Sarawakian senior clergyman.

“In other words, it is in our language and culture DNA. We feel that the judgment was made without taking into due consideration of what the word means to us.

“We feel there has been a miscarriage of justice. It is insidious. It is tantamount to an act of language and culture genocide,” said Bolly, who also chairs the Association of Churches in Sarawak. Malaysia’s Bumiputera Christians are accustomed to praying in their native tongues and the national language, Bahasa Malaysia. Their bibles, scriptures and hymns too have been translated into their respective indigenous languages, many of which contain the controversial “Allah” word as reference to God.

In its landmark ruling on June 23, a seven-judge panel at the top court had in a majority decision dismissed the Catholic Church’s bid to overturn the Court of Appeal’s decision last year, which held that the word of Arabic origin was not “integral” to the religious practice of Malaysia’s Christians. The Federal Court has however noted that the “integral” comment in the Court of Appeal was non-binding on other cases as it was just a remark made in passing.

In his strongly-worded sermon at the St Mary’s Cathedral here yesterday, the archbishop noted that Malaysian churches are now facing “severe restrictions” in carrying out religious worship — despite the freedoms guaranteed by the country’s Federal Constitution. He said that while it may be “tempting” to accept the Federal Court’s ruling for the sake of peace, the court decision had failed to reflect the importance of the word for east Malaysians.

“But to the natives of Sabah and Sarawak, the impact of the court’s decision is far-reaching. To them, the issue at stake is more than just religious sensitivities,” Bolly said. He said the situation now was even more “tragic” as many of the Bumiputera Christian community were “naive” and “ignorant of their own rights”, adding that it left them “completely oblivious to the dynamics that are making them poor and victims of the political hegemony of the day”.

Bolly had cited the “Allah” prohibition as an example of the challenges that Charles Kumar Samuel — who was yesterday installed as the Anglican Diocese of West Malaysia’s new assistant bishop — would face as the country experiences growing “irrational racial and religious polarisation”.

The archbishop added that the churches would be “irresponsible” if they were to stay silent in the face of injustice to the Bumiputera Christians, most of who hail from Sarawak and Sabah but also include the Orang Asli in the peninsula.

“They can’t understand why certain people take offence and go ballistic when all they do is simply live and pray the way they have been [doing] for generations,” Bolly said, and vowed to “use the word till kingdom come”.

Despite the Federal Court ruling, the “Allah” dispute is far from over as Malaysia’s churches step up to defend their constitutional rights. The Catholic Church recently applied for a review of the Federal Court’s June decision while a Sabah evangelical church, Sidang Injil Borneo (SIB), succeeded in clearing the first hurdle for its “Allah” challenge to be retried at the High Court, providing a glimmer of hope for Malaysia’s native Christians.

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