MALAYSIA — The Home Ministry of Malaysia has withdrawn its appeal against the High Court’s decision in March 2021, which overturned the government’s ban on the use of the word “Allah” in Christian publications throughout the country.
Datuk Seri Saifuddin Nasution Ismail, the current Home Minister under Anwar’s administration, explained that his Ministry made the decision due to “contradiction found between a Home Ministry administrative order and a Cabinet decision made in 1986″.
The court record shows that The Attorney-General’s Chambers, representing the Home Ministry, notified the Court of Appeal that they would not pursue the appeal.
According to Malaysia English media outlet The Star, the Home Minister clarified that the court’s decision was based on an administrative approach and not a theological standpoint, as the court is not deemed appropriate to decide matters related to religion specifically.
“This is because the function of the Court itself is not appropriate to decide matters related to religion specifically,” he explained the matter to the reporters on Tuesday (16 May).
In Malaysia, the legal system consists of both civil courts and Shariah courts, the latter being responsible for matters concerning Islamic law.
The Home Minister said in the 10 March 2021’s judgement, it is clear that the Judge made a decision “based on an administrative approach” and it was found to be consistent with the decision of the Federal Court in the case of the Titular Roman Catholic Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur vs the Home Affairs Minister in 2014.
“Regarding this, the Government’s decision not to proceed with the appeal is made on a case-by-case basis; without affecting the facts of each case that is currently in court,” he added.
Saifuddin added that the government intends to review and update a comprehensive directive on the use of words like “Allah” to align with the interests of the multi-racial and multi-religious community in Malaysia.
Malaysian PM acknowledges rights of Christians in Sarawak
In the meantime, when responding to the Home Ministry’s decision to withdraw its appeal in the case, Malaysia Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim acknowledged that Christians in Sarawak can use the word “Allah,” but restrictions remain for non-Muslims in other states.
“The court had ruled (in favour of Sarawak) and we must understand that it is Sarawak’s prerogative,” he said in an event on Tuesday.
However, Baru Bian, a lawyer and a state assemblyman in Sarawak challenged the Prime Minister’s statement, emphasizing that the High Court’s ruling applies to the entire country and not just Sarawak.
“The judgment of the High Court applies throughout the whole of Malaysia,” he reiterated.
One of the high-profile cases in Malaysia
On May 11, 2008, Malaysia’s Home Ministry seized eight educational CDs and books from Jill Ireland Bill, a Sarawak Christian of the Melanau tribe, at an airport in Sepang.
The CDs containing titles including ‘Cara Menggunakan Kunci Kerajaan Allah’, ‘Cara Hidup Dalam Kerajaan Allah’, and ‘Ibadah Yang Benar Dalam Kerajaan Allah’, which Jill brought back from Indonesia.
In August 2008, Jill Ireland filed a lawsuit against the Home Minister and the Malaysian government, challenging their decision to confiscate the materials.
This legal battle spanned over a decade and focused on Jill Ireland’s constitutional rights to freely practice her religion and seek recognition for those rights.
A significant breakthrough came on 10 March 2021, when the Malaysian High Court delivered a landmark ruling in favour of Jill Ireland.
The court granted her the right to use the word “Allah” in her religious education, overturning a 1986 directive by the Home Ministry that prohibited its use in Christian publications.
During the ruling, Judge Datuk Nor Bee stated that the four Arabic words, including “Allah,” could be used by Christians in their publications, provided it is clearly indicated as “For Christians Only” on the front page.
The judge deemed the 1986 directive “illegal and unlawful,” as it lacked justification on the grounds of public order or potential confusion.
Furthermore, the judge pointed out that the use of the word “Allah” in Bahasa Malaysia by the Christian communities of Sabah and Sarawak since 1629 had not caused any significant problems leading to public disorder over the centuries.
Sabah church drops its 16-year-long legal challenge
While the High Court made landmark decision for Sarawak’s Jill Ireland case, Malay Mail reported on Wednesday (17 May) that a Sabah church, Sidang Injil Borneo’s (SIB), has chosen to end its 16-year-long legal challenge against the Malaysian government’s 1986 ban on the use of the word “Allah” in Christian publications.
SIB’s case was linked to the Home Ministry’s 2007 decision to seize and withhold the release of the church’s Christian educational materials containing the word “Allah.”
On 15 August 2007, the customs department seized three boxes of educational materials belonging to SIB at the Low-Cost Carrier Terminal (LCCT) airport in Sepang.
Despite SIB’s explanation that the materials were intended for educational purposes within the church and not for sale, the Home Ministry initially refused to return them, citing a directive from 19 May 1986.
However, in January 2008, the Home Ministry returned the publications to SIB with the condition that they could only be distributed if the front page was stamped with the symbol of the “cross” and labelled as a Christian publication.
Despite this, SIB decided to continue pursuing the case, which involved constitutional rights such as freedom of religion, equality before the law, and protection against religious discrimination.
The legal process surrounding the case has been ongoing since 2008 and continues to the present day.