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UN rights expert urges Malaysia to overturn ban on Christian use of 'Allah'

The UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeldt [official profile], on Monday urged [statement] the government of Malaysia to overturn the nation's ban on a Catholic publication's use of the word "Allah" to refer to God. Allah is the Arabic word for God and has been used by Christians Malaysians for centuries to refer to God. In 2009 the Ministry of Home Affairs [official website] ordered the newspaper The Herald [official website] a weekly Catholic newspaper to cease the use of the word "Allah" or face revocation of their publishing permit. In October of this year an appeals court in Malaysia on ruled [decision, PDF] that the nation's government can legally ban the use of the word "Allah" to refer to God in faiths other than Islam. In condemning the Malaysian government's actions the UN expert stated that "It cannot be the business of the State to shape or reshape religious traditions, nor can the State claim any binding authority in the interpretation of religious sources or in the definition of the tenets of faith." Bielefeldt's criticism of the Malaysian government is supported by the UN Independent Expert on minority issues Rita Izsak and UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression [official websites] Frank La Rue.

Litigation over the Malaysian government's ban on using the word "Allah" for God in non-Muslim faiths has been ongoing for nearly four years. In January 2010 the Malaysia High Court [Malaysian courts website] ruled [JURIST report] that non-Muslims can use the word "Allah" as a translation for the word "God," overturning a three-year government ban on the practice. A week later the court temporarily suspended enforcement [JURIST report] of the ruling after the Malaysian Ministry of Home Affairs sought a stay. Earlier that week the government filed a notice of appeal [JURIST report].

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