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KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysian Muslims rallied on Friday to protest against Christians using the word "Allah" for God after a spate of attacks on churches that threatened to stoke racial and religious tensions.
At least three churches were struck early on Friday in an unprecedented spate of attacks in this mainly Muslim country as a row over a court ruling that allowed a Catholic newspaper to use the word "Allah" in its Malay language editions presented a major challenge to the government.
The issue could pose a longer-term risk of political instability for Malaysia, which has been trailing Indonesia and Thailand for foreign investment and where investors have been frightened off by the prospect of an end to the predictable rule of the coalition that has governed for 52 years.
At Friday prayers, banners outside the country's biggest mosque in the capital city of Kuala Lumpur read "Don't pawn Malay pride for personal political gain" as hundreds of people gathered chanting "Allahu Akbar" (God is greatest) in peaceful protests.
While Malaysian police downplayed the attacks that saw one Pentecostalist church gutted, saying they were carried out by "emotional" people, political analysts said they represented a major challenge for Prime Minister Najib Razak, who took office in April last year.
"Today is a test of whether he is a Malay prime minister or the Malaysian prime minister," said Bridget Welsh, a Malaysia specialist at Singapore Management University.
Malaysia is mainly Muslim and Malay but there are substantial ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities who mainly practice Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism. Around 9 percent of the 28 million population are Christian, including 800,000 Catholics.
Najib angrily rejected claims by the opposition that his political party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) which relies on the majority Muslim Malay population for support, was responsible for the violence.
"Don't point the fingers at UMNO or anyone else. We have always been very responsible. Don't say this attack is motivated by UMNO," he told a press conference.
Malaysia's minorities combined to hand the government its biggest ever losses in national and state elections in 2008, in part as they became disillusioned with creeping Islamization in as well as corruption and economic mismanagement.
Friday's attack at the Metro Tabernacle church in suburban Kuala Lumpur, part of a Pentecostal church called "The Assemblies of God," gutted a ground-floor administrative office.
Firebombs were later tossed into the compound of at least two more churches -- the Assumption Catholic Church and the Life Chapel Protestant church -- but both failed to explode.
The use of the word "Allah" to describe the Christian God is widespread in Arabic speaking countries such as Lebanon and Egypt but Malaysian Muslims say the issue is especially sensitive in a country that has large minorities and where they say Christian missionaries will use the word to convert Muslims.
Police tightened security at churches throughout the country and Najib denounced the attacks, saying action would be taken against offenders.
"It was people who were emotional, who got on a motorbike and threw the bottle with petrol into the church," Inspector-General of Police Musa Hassan told reporters.
How Najib handles the issues of religion and race will determine whether he is returned to power in elections that have to be held by 2013. Najib needs to win back the support of ethnic Chinese and Indians to establish himself as a credible premier.
"The ball is now in Najib's court. All eyes are on him and the home ministry," said Ooi Kee Beng from the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. "Will they enforce the rule of law or be seen enforcing the rule of law without fear or favor? This is the next thing to watch for."
The government has appealed the court ruling that allowed The Herald newspaper to use the word "Allah" for the Christian God.
Catholics say that they need to use the word for their Malay-speaking congregations on Borneo island in a country where it is illegal to convert Muslims but where freedom of religion is guaranteed under the constitution.
Some Muslims are adamant however that they need to defend their religion.
"Today we are here for a peaceful demonstration to tell them our hearts are broken," Arman Azha Abu Hanafiah, one of the Muslim protest leaders on Friday, told Reuters.
Additional reporting by Niluksi Koswanage, Royce Cheah and Soo Ai Peng; Editing by David Chance and Alex Richardson