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Malaysia v. The Herald is a court case involving the Malaysian government and a local Catholic newspaper known as The Herald. The case involves charges of unconstitutional censorship after the newspaper lost its publishing license for using the word Allah in a distinctly Christian context.

On December 31, 2009, the Kuala Lumpur High Court ruled in favour of the Herald newspaper, stating that even though Islam is the federal religion of the country, this does not empower the government to prohibit the use of the word Allah by non-Muslims.[1] This case is an example of the dispute over the nature of the Islamic and Christian divinity.


Use of the word Allah

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The Herald had asked the Malaysian High Court to intervene in a court case involving the use of the word Allah by the newspaper. The Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur, Tan Sri Murphy Pakiam, also acting as the publisher of the Herald, is the plaintiff. The application was filed on December 22, 2007. In his statement of claim, Pakiam seeks declaratory relief that the Herald is entitled to use the word Allah and that the word is not exclusive to Islam. He also seeks a declaration that the minister's directive to cease the use of the word Allah in the Herald is illegal and null and void.[2] One of the alleged reasons for the government ban was that the Malay news content which used the word Allah to describe God in a non-Muslim context would confuse followers of Islam in Malaysia.[3] It should be noted that Allah is simply Arabic for "the God", and the Quran says that Allah is the same god worshiped by Jews and Christians. Thus Muslims in English-speaking areas like North America will often use the word God in place of Allah, and Christians in Arabic-speaking nations like Egypt will say Allah for God, even in church. It is only in Malaysia that Allah is interpreted as the God in Islam, as Islam is the predominant religion in Malaysia.

Show cause letter by the Malaysian government

The Herald was issued with three warning letters before a show cause letter was sent to its publisher on July 16, 2007. A Home Ministry official told the The Sun the first warning letter was dated March 10, 2007, with the second on March 16, 2007, and the third on July 1, 2007. The official said the Herald did not print out its printing number properly and carried articles that were contrary to its publishing permit. The Catholic Herald may have its permit suspended if it goes ahead and publishes an editorial on the Permatang Pauh by-election. An official with the Malaysian Home Ministry's publication control and al-Quran text division said this was because an editorial on the by-election was a topic under current affairs and politics. [4] Che Din Yusof, of the government's Publications Control and Al-Quran Texts Unit said that the "reminder" was not a show-cause letter, per se, but was issued because the newsletter "focused on political issues on Anwar Ibrahim." [5]

Malaysia's government has accused the Christian newspaper of breaking publication rules by running articles deemed political and insulting to Islam, and warned it of stern action. The reprimand underscores the tenuous position of minority religions in multi-ethnic Malaysia amid a growing number of interfaith disputes. Christians, Buddhists and Hindus complain that their rights are being undermined by government efforts to bolster the status of Islam, the country's official religion. [6][7]

The Herald had come under scrutiny for alleged repeated breaches of its permit conditions, and came out strongly in defense of itself. The Herald had assured the Malaysian Home Ministry that the authorities had nothing to worry about as the weekly was targeted at Catholics and not the general public. Its editor, Father Lawrence Andrew, said Herald had never gone beyond issues of religion in its publications. "The editorial is only asking people to pray for a just and fair by-election. Can't we Christians ask fellow Christians to pray? Is that against the law?" He also said "We comment on issues. The Pope comments on issues. It's normal for us to have an ethical interpretation" of current events and politics, Andrew said. "I don't think we were in any way going against the type of content we have chosen." [8] "In our reply to an earlier warning letter from the same person ... we remarked that the Home Ministry had not defined the concept of religion in the application form for the renewal of printing permit, nor is there a definition of religion found in the Federal Constitution," wrote Father Lawrence Andrew, the editor of the publication, in an editorial. "So we asked them to point out where we had gone wrong. We are awaiting their reply." He defended the article, saying it does not degrade Islam or any other religion. "The article was an ethical analysis about the world after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center towers." [5]

Concerns raised by outside parties

On August 13, 2008, the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) expressed its concern with the threat to suspend the publication of The Herald if it published an editorial on the Permatang Pauh by-election. Suhakam Civil and Political Rights Working Group (CPRWG) chairman Datuk Dr Michael Yeoh Onn Kheng said this would be deemed an infringement on freedom of expression.[9]

The Catholic Lawyers' Society (CLS) of Kuala Lumpur asked the Home Ministry to withdraw its warning and show-cause letters unconditionally as well as maintain The Herald's publishing permit as the reporting in The Herald was in line with the teachings of the Catholic Church in social and political charity. CLS president Mabel Sabastian said "Ultimately, the interpretation of what constitutes religious matters should be left to the leaders and adherents of the faith. The Home Ministry is not in a position to dictate to the Catholics (or for that matter, the proponents of any other faith) the scope of their religion." He also said, "In seeking to control the contents of The Herald, the Home Ministry's warning and show-cause letters go against Article 3 (1), Article 10(1)(a) and Article 11(3)(a) of the Federal Constitution, that is, the right to freely practise one's religion, the general freedom of speech and expression and the right of a religious group to manage its own affairs... Such controls will deprive the Catholic community of current information and education in relation to their faith. Such an act by the authorities is tantamount to curtailment of religious freedom."[10]

The Herald's appeal

The Herald and the archbishop of the diocese of Kuala Lumpur opted to take the legal route and take the government to court to overturn the ruling on the use of the word Allah. [10] Meanwhile the state Islamic councils of Selangor, Terengganu, Malacca, Kedah, Johor, Penang, Federal Territory, and the Malaysian Chinese Muslim Association applied to intervene in the case.[11] The Malaysian Gurdwaras Council informed the court that they wanted to submit a representation to the Attorney-General's Chambers in not turning this issue into a confrontation between the Catholics and Islamic Councils.[12]

The Herald was ordered by the Malaysian government to cease printing its Malay language edition until courts resolve a ban on the paper's use of the word Allah. The Herald newspaper editor Father Lawrence Andrew said the move was part of a series of restrictions put in place by the conservative Muslim government when it renewed the paper's licence on December 30, 2008.[13] The Herald referred to its lawyers to check whether the Malaysian Home Ministry has the right to stop it from printing its Bahasa Malaysia edition.[14] The Catholic Church wrote a letter to the ministry demanding that it recall its order against the use of Bahasa Malaysia when it renewed the The Herald's annual publishing permit, giving the ministry seven days to reply or it would sue the government for going against the Federal Constitution.[15]

On the ruling by the Malaysian government on February 27, 2008, The Herald's editor stated that the controversial ban on the word Allah to mean God for non-Muslims is still in place. Father Lawrence quoting a letter dated February 16, 2009, said that the printing, publishing, sale, issue, circulation and possession of any document and publication relating to Christianity containing the words Allah, Kaabah, Baitullah and Solat were prohibited unless on the front cover of the document and publication are written with the words "FOR CHRISTIANITY" in font type Arial of size 16 in bold.[16]

Government ruling

In an apparent reversal, officials from the Malaysian government said the newspaper can have a Bahasa Malaysia edition as long as it does not describe God as Allah which is reserved only for Muslims. The Herald will mark the return of its Bahasa Malaysia edition with a bumper issue on January 18 and defy the authorities by using Allah to describe God.[3]

On February 26, 2009, The Herald got permission to use the word Allah on its masthead, provided it clearly states that the magazine is 'For Christians only'. This was stated in the recently gazetted Internal Security Act signed by the Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar on February 16.[17] However on February 28, 2009, the Home Ministry rescinded the government gazette that allowed conditional use of the word Allah in Christian publications. The government's decision to ban the use of the word Allah in The Herald remained in force until the court decided otherwise. [18]

Defiance by the Catholic Church

The Catholic Church of Malaysia wants the government to retract its statement denying it banned its weekly from publishing in the national language or face legal action. Apparently a Home Ministry official said that the ministry had never prohibited The Herald from using Bahasa Malaysia.[19] The Catholic Church will print the latest edition of The Herald using the word Allah. Father Lawrence stated that he intends to continue doing so until the courts rule on the issue.[20] On April 24, 2009, the Catholic Church finally won the right to challenge the government's ban on the right to use the word Allah outside of Islam by the High Court.[21]

High Court ruling

On December 31, 2009, the Kuala Lumpur High Court ruled in favor of The Herald, stating that even though Islam is the federal religion of the country, this does not empower the government to prohibit the use of the word Allah. It also found that the word Allah was not exclusive to Muslims.[22][23][24] On January 6, 2010, the High Court granted a stay on its own ruling that the Herald can publish the word Allah, in reference to God, in the Bahasa Malaysia section of its paper. The decision was reached in chambers, after both lawyers for the government and the church came to a mutual agreement to freeze the decision until the case is settled in the Court of Appeal.[25]



A series of attacks have been carried out against churches in Malaysia since the Herald decision on 31 December, 2009. These attacks were carried out simultaneously together with the protests by Malaysian Muslim groups. The government has responded by increasing security at places of worship and condemning the attacks. The Malaysian opposition has criticized the government's handling of the Herald case and exacerbating the situation. Some opposition leaders claim that these protests, together with the government handling of the 'Allah' controversy may have been the prime reason for the church attacks. [26] Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak has defended his government’s decision to allow Muslims to protest against the ruling, with government observers seeing it as a form of damage control.[27]

In a form of compromise, the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz said that Christians in Sabah and Sarawak should be allowed to use the word “Allah” because it has been part of their custom for decades. However he said that they must respect the sensitivities of those in the peninsula, who are uncomfortable with the use of the word by non-Muslims, and not use the word there.[28] Church ministers from both sides of the South China Sea slammed the federal government’s latest attempt at a compromise, saying that it is a ridiculous arrangement and undermines freedom of expression in the country.[29] The Islamic Development Department (Jakim) maintains that Christians should not be allowed to use the word “Allah”, rejecting the suggestion that the word could be used in East Malaysia while remaining banned on the peninsula. Its director-general Datuk Wan Mohamad Sheikh Abdul Aziz said there should not be two sets of laws and rules to deal with the “Allah” issue.[30]

The law firm representing The Herald was burglarized on January 14, 2010 and a lawyer's laptop and cash was found to be missing.[31][32][33][34]

See also


  1. ^ Cheah, Royce (December 31, 2009). "Malaysian court rules Catholic paper can use "Allah"". Reuters (Kuala Lumpur: Thomson Reuters). Retrieved January 8, 2010.  
  2. ^ "'Herald' suit: January hearing for 8 councils". NST. 2008-08-06. Retrieved 2008-08-06.  
  3. ^ a b Chong, Debra (January 8, 2009). "By God, the Herald will continue to use "Allah"". The Malaysian Insider (Kuala Lumpur: The Malaysian Insider). Retrieved January 8, 2010.  
  4. ^ "Herald given three warnings before show cause". Sun2Surf (Sun Media Corporation). August 13, 2008. Retrieved January 8, 2010.  
  5. ^ a b Yoong, Jed (August 13, 2008). "Race and Religion on the Boil Again in Malaysia". Asia Sentinel (Asia Sentinel). Retrieved January 8, 2010.  
  6. ^ "Malaysia Warns Christian Paper to Avoid Politics". The Christian Post. 2008-08-11. Retrieved 2008-08-11.  
  7. ^ Kuppusamy, Baradan (August 19, 2008). "MALAYSIA: Crackdown on Civil Rights, Media Feared". Inter Press Service (Kuala Lumpur: Inter Press Service). Retrieved January 8, 2010.  
  8. ^ "Catholic weekly defends itself". NST. 2008-08-14. Retrieved 2008-08-14.  
  9. ^ "Suhakam Expressed Concern with the Threat to Suspend Herald's Publication". Yahoo! News. 2008-08-14. Retrieved 2008-08-14.  
  10. ^ a b "Catholic lawyers want show-cause letters withdrawn". The Star (Malaysia) (Petaling Jaya: Star Publications (Malaysia)). August 19, 2008. Retrieved January 8, 2010.  
  11. ^ "Muslim Bodies Seek To Stay Catholic Herald Case"Allah"". MySinchew (MCIL Multimedia). November 21, 2008. Retrieved January 8, 2010.  
  12. ^ "Islamic bodies want to bring 'Herald' case to apex court". NST Online. 2008-11-22. Retrieved 2008-11-22.  
  13. ^ "BM Edition Of Catholic Paper Banned: Editor". MySinchew (MCIL Multimedia). January 1, 2009. Retrieved January 8, 2010.  
  14. ^ "Weekly goes back to lawyers over new conditions". SinChew. 2009-01-01. Retrieved 2008-01-01.  
  15. ^ Chong, Debra (January 11, 2009). "Catholic Church may sue over ministry 'lie'". Malaysia Today. The Malaysian Insider (Malaysia Today). Retrieved January 8, 2010.  
  16. ^ Chong, Debra (February 26, 2009). "Christians can use Allah in print, but they cannot say it". The Malaysian Insider (Kuala Lumpur: The Malaysian Insider). Retrieved January 8, 2010.  
  17. ^ "Malaysian journal gets permission to use the word `Allah'". Malaysia Sun (Midwest Radio Network). February 27, 2009. Retrieved January 8, 2010.  
  18. ^ "Home Ministry rescinds gazette on word 'Allah'". 2009-02-28. Retrieved 2009-02-28.  
  19. ^ "Catholic Church may sue over ministry 'lie'". Malaysian Insider. 2009-01-11. Retrieved 2008-01-11.  
  20. ^ "Catholic paper defies ban on use of 'Allah'". Malaysian Insider. 2009-01-21. Retrieved 2008-01-21.  
  21. ^ "Church wins right to challenge 'Allah' ban". Malaysian Insider. 2009-04-24. Retrieved 2008-04-24.  
  22. ^ "Court rules Catholic Herald can use Allah word". Sin Chew. 2009-12-31. Retrieved 2009-12-31.  
  23. ^ "Malaysian Court Strikes Down Ban". WSJ. 2009-12-31. Retrieved 2009-12-31.  
  24. ^ "Court: Allah not exclusive to Islam". Sun2Surf. 2009-12-31. Retrieved 2009-12-31.  
  25. ^ Chong, Debra (January 6, 2010). "High Court stays 'Allah' decision pending appeal". The Malaysian Insider (Kuala Lumpur: The Malaysian Insider). Retrieved January 8, 2010.  
  26. ^ "Najib’s options with Allah". The Nut Graph. 2010-01-13. Retrieved 2010-01-15.  
  27. ^ "Najib backs right to protest ‘Allah’ judgment". Malaysian Insider. 2010-01-07. Retrieved 2010-01-13.  
  28. ^ "Minister: It’s okay to allow ‘Allah’ use in Sabah and Sarawak". TheStar Online. 2010-01-16. Retrieved 2010-01-16.  
  29. ^ "No deal, clergymen tell Nazri". Malaysian Insider. 2010-01-16. Retrieved 2010-01-16.  
  30. ^ "Jakim says ‘Allah’ ban must include Sabah and Sarawak". Malaysian Insider. 2010-01-16. Retrieved 2010-01-16.  
  31. ^ "Break-in at Herald lawyers’ office". Malaysian Insider. 2010-01-14. Retrieved 2010-01-14.  
  32. ^ "Lawyers' office in Malaysia 'Allah' case ransacked". Washington Post. 2010-01-14. Retrieved 2010-01-14.  
  33. ^ "‘Allah’ Dispute Lawyer’s Malaysia Office Ransacked". Businessweek. 2010-01-14. Retrieved 2010-01-14.  
  34. ^ "‘Lawyers' Office Ransacked as 'Allah' Dispute Intensifies in Malaysia". Wall Street Journal. 2010-01-14. Retrieved 2010-01-14.  


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