Malaysian court overturns ban on use of 'Allah' by non-Muslim publications

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - A Malaysian court on Wednesday overturned a decades-old government policy barring non-Muslim publications from using the word “Allah” to refer to God, in a landmark ruling on an issue that has fanned religious tensions in the mainly Muslim country.

FILE PHOTO: Police monitor traffic at the entrance of Malaysia's High Court before the arrival of Malaysia's opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim in Kuala Lumpur July 8, 2009. Anwar faces another gruelling trial for sodomy starting on Wednesday that could break his career and risks deepening political divisions in the Southeast Asian nation. REUTERS/Bazuki Muhammad/File Photo

The decision by the Kuala Lumpur High Court, which was confirmed by a lawyer in the case and reported by media, including national news agency Bernama, was part of a case brought by Jill Ireland, a Malaysian Christian, who sought a declaration that her constitutional rights had been violated.

Authorities in 2008 seized Malay-language religious books and compact discs from Ireland at Kuala Lumpur airport, based on a 1986 home ministry directive banning Malay-language Christian publications from using the word “Allah”.

Many Malay-speaking Christians say the word has been used in the country for centuries, particularly on Malaysia’s side of Borneo island. Ireland is Melanau, an indigenous ethnic group from Sarawak state on Borneo.

The court on Wednesday declared that the constitution granted Ireland equality before the law and that she was entitled to import the publications in the exercise of her rights to education and to practice religion, her lawyer Annou Xavier told Reuters.

“The court also declared that the 1986 directive by the Home Ministry... was unlawful and unconstitutional,” Xavier said.

The High Court’s judgment was not immediately available to media.

Home Ministry officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Malaysia's highest court in 2015 had dismissed an appeal by the Catholic Church to use "Allah" in a Christian publication, after a previous tribunal ruled the word was exclusive to majority Malay Muslims. Christians make up about 9% of Malaysia's population, according to a 2010 census.

The court said Wednesday’s decision did not contradict the 2015 ruling, however, as it concerned an individual’s constitutional rights rather than matters surrounding publishing, according to Xavier.

Reporting by Rozanna Latiff and Joseph Sipalan