KUALA LUMPUR A Malaysian court ruled on Thursday that a Catholic newspaper can use "Allah" to describe God in a surprise judgment that could allay worries about the erosion of minority rights in the majority Muslim country.
The High Court said it was the constitutional right for the Catholic newspaper, the Herald, to use the word "Allah."
"Even though Islam is the federal religion, it does not empower the respondents to prohibit the use of the word," said High Court judge Lau Bee Lan.
Last January, Malaysia banned the use of the word "Allah" by Christians, saying the use of the Arabic word might offend the sensitivities of Muslims who make up 60 per cent of Malaysia's 28 million population.
Analysts say cases such as that involving the Herald worry Malaysian Muslim activists and officials who see using the word Allah in Christian publications including bibles as attempts to proselytize.
The Herald circulates in Sabah and Sarawak on Borneo Island where most tribal people converted to Christianity more than a century ago.
In February, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur Murphy Pakiam, as publisher of the Herald, filed for a judicial review, naming the Home Ministry and the government as respondents.
He had sought to declare that the decision by the respondents prohibiting him from using the word "Allah" in the Herald was illegal and that the word "Allah" was not exclusive to Islam.
The Home Minister's decision to ban the use of the word was illegal, null and void, said Lau.
Lawyers representing the government said they would refer to the Home Ministry on whether to appeal.
"It is a day of justice and we can say right now that we are citizens of one nation," said Father Lawrence Andrew, the Herald's editor.
Christians -- including about 800,000 Catholics -- make up about 9.1 percent of Malaysia's population. Malays are by definition Muslims and are not allowed to convert.
Malaysia was rated as having "very high" government restrictions on religion in a recent survey by the Pew Forum, bracketing it with the likes of Iran and Egypt and it was the 9th most restrictive of 198 countries.
Published since 1980, the Herald newspaper is printed in English, Mandarin, Tamil and Malay. The Malay edition is mainly read by tribes in the eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak on Borneo Island.
Ethnic Chinese and Indians, who are mainly Christians, Buddhists and Hindus, have been upset by court rulings on conversions and other religious disputes as well as demolitions of some Hindu temples.
(Editing by Nick Macfie)