On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Similarities in the faiths not unusual

IT’S odd that it should even become an issue but the matter has now gone to the courts following the unprecedented suits by two church groups against the Government for prohibiting the word Allah to be used.  

Last week, the Catholic Herald filed a suit against the Government for banning the word to be used in the weekly’s Bahasa Malaysia section.  

Uplifting beat: The youth fellowship of Ba Kelalan Main Church, Sarawak, practising a worshipful song two weeks before Christmas. Sermons in churches are increasingly conducted in the Malay language simply because the younger congregations are no longer fluent in English.

The suit was made after the Herald, published by the Catholic archbishop of Kuala Lumpur, was issued a series of directives by the Internal Security Ministry for the publication to cease the use of the word Allah, failing which the publication’s permit could either be suspended or revoked.  

Other than the Bahasa Malaysia segment, the weekly also has the English, Chinese and Tamil segments for its members.  

The Sidang Injil Borneo (SIB) church and its president have also sought a judicial review against the ministry for its decision to stop the church from importing Christian books which contain the word Allah.  

Deputy Internal Security Minister Datuk Johari Baharum has reportedly justified the action by saying the decision was taken to prevent confusion as the word Allah could only be used in the context of Islam and not other religions.  

He was quoted as saying that “only Muslims can use Allah, it’s a Muslim word, you see. The word Allah is published by the Catholics, it’s not right.”  

As someone who knows Johari, I find him amicable, approachable and helpful but I believe he has only taken a political perspective on this issue.  

With due respect, I do not think Johari has taken into account the linguistic and historical issue of the subject. He probably made the decision on the advice of middle and lower-level officials and we hope he will review this decision, which has caused unnecessary discontent. 


Beautiful greeting 

Anyone travelling across the Middle East can tell you that tourists would be greeted with “Assalamualaikum”, even among Christian Arabs, but Malaysians are told that it is for use exclusively among Muslims. Even the Arabs are perplexed by this.  

“Peace be upon you” is such a beautiful and meaningful greeting, and we wish for it to be used by Malaysians of all races. It is also such a positive introduction to the world of Islam, where followers wish others well.  

The Arabs prefer salam, as with the Malays here, while the Jews use shalom. There is no religious context in such greetings.  

If you take a copy of the Arabic bible, you will find that Allah is used as a reference to God in the Christian perspective. It’s not something new as it has been in existence for centuries. In fact, the Christian usage of the word predates Islam.  

This Arabic word is the closest equivalent to the English word God. In Hebrew and Aramaic, the language used by Jesus, the word used for God was “El” or “Elah”.  

Christians in Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Indonesia and many parts of Africa with huge Muslim communities have used the word with no problems.  

In fact, the Church of Nativity where Jesus was born is located at the Palestinian side and Muslim leaders have no problems attending the church mass annually, as part of the respect accorded to the church. 

I made my pilgrimage to Jerusalem some years back and it was an eye-opener for me to see most of the biblical sites at the Palestinian-run territory. A Muslim holds the keys to the Church of Nativity because of the factional fight between church groups.  

It is common to see Palestinian Muslims and Christians selling church souvenirs, including crosses and rosaries, to pilgrims side by side.  

The ministry has obviously decided that Allah is exclusive to Islam, seeing it as a security issue, but times have changed. They have no reason to fear that Malaysians would be confused. In fact, the ministry’s decision is confusing.  

SIB president Pastor Jerry W.A. Dusing has said, in court documents, that the word Allah was used in the first complete Malay Bible in 1733 and the second complete Bible in 1879.  

The ministry has stirred up a subject which should be left alone, as it has been for centuries. A new generation of Malaysians, more fluent in Bahasa Malaysia than English, has emerged because of our own policy.  

Sermons in churches are increasingly conducted in the Malay language, simply because the younger congregation are no longer fluent in English.  

Indonesians, mostly foreign workers, are attending church services in huge numbers alongside Malaysians. If Christian books cannot be in Bahasa Malaysia, then it has got to come from Indonesia and Singapore. The dilemma is that the Bahasa Indonesia translated Bible uses the word Allah and Indonesia has more Muslims than Malaysia but it’s not a problem there.  

Information Minister Datuk Seri Zainuddin Maidin is right. He has consistently reminded Malaysians that Bahasa Malaysia is not exclusively for Malays. The same applies to Arabic words.  

But I believe our Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is a fair man. He has been open-minded enough to attend Christmas gatherings and it was him who lifted the ban on the Iban-language Bible, revoking an Internal Security Ministry order.  

Pak Lah must have listened to the views of both Muslims and Christians by now and certainly he serves as a good appellant.  

It would be good if the church could meet Pak Lah, express their feelings and possibly withdraw the suits. They could also give an assurance that these books and publications will be used only for their members.  


Challenging tasks 

The impasse has to end and as we usher in the new year, let us remember there are bigger and more challenging tasks ahead of us. Surely, the ministry has more issues to handle than to create a linguistic controversy with religious connotations.  

It is good that the controversy has been handled in a rational and calm manner. Many Malaysians, in fact, do not see the need for it to crop up in the first place, and we sometimes need to remind ourselves that we should not see any agenda or shadow in every action or statement that we make.  

These similarities, in words and practices, in Islam, Christianity and Judaism, are expected because these religions originated from the same area and the people share many cultural, sociological and anthropological traits. 

Unlike other religions, these three religions, are sometimes referred to as “Abrahamic faiths”, believe in one God but have different concepts of the Creator.  

There is something positive out of this controversy – it’s good to learn and appreciate each other’s religions. As individuals, we are all constantly seeking out God in our personal journey of faith. Let us do so with our eyes, our minds and our hearts open.