On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Find a way out of this deadlock

The Star has been issued a reprimand letter from the Home Ministry for reporting on the 5,000 impounded Bahasa Malaysia Bibles in a March 9 article. An editor of this newspaper represented me after we were asked to meet the ministry officials in Putrajaya.

While the reprimand letter is certain to lead to some cautiousness on the part of the print media, it is not going to stop the issue from being brought up on the Internet. This is the Digital Age and old-fashioned Analogue methods will not work as more mediums of information are available.

For that matter, the controversy would be taken up and, worse, exploited in ceramahs. It is, for sure, a hot topic in many places.

Furthermore, the Bible in Bahasa Malaysia can be downloaded in full from the Internet.

So, just take the trouble to listen and don’t worry about the press. It is certainly our responsibility to report on issues. As long as national security is not threatened, we have a duty to take up the views of the people.

The deadlock over the Bahasa Malaysia Bible has dragged on for too long and it has led to some urgency this time because of the impending Sarawak elections.

There is an estimated 40% of Christian voters in Sarawak. Among them are the Ibans and other indigenous groups, many of whom have consistently voted for the ruling party.

They have used Bahasa Malaysia in their worship, sermons and prayers. They are comfortable reading the Malay language Bible and many of their churches use Bahasa Malaysia names. These include the highly respected Sidang Injil Borneo (SIB).

Like it or not, the word “Allah” has long been a norm among Christian worshippers in Sabah and Sarawak to describe God. For that matter, the Peranakan community in Malacca also use that term of reference.

But many Malay Muslims feel that the term “Allah” should only be used exclusively by them. They are suspicious that the word, so closely associated with Islam, could be a ploy to convert Muslims.

In fact, 10 out of the 13 states here banned non-Muslims from using up to 35 Arabic terms including Allah, with Selangor banning the use of 25 words either orally or in writing.

The argument that the word “Allah” is used by Christians in Muslim countries like Egypt, Syria and even Indonesia isn’t likely to change the minds of most Muslims here. For religious and cultural reasons, that is something that has to be considered.

But the issue of the impounded BM Bibles has taken a turn for the worse. A decision to release the Bibles, which were printed in Indonesia, to appease Christians here has resulted in an unexpected reaction, at least for the authorities.

The church has refused to collect them and Christians are infuriated because of the require­ment to stamp the words “For Christians Only” on these Bibles. The move to put serial numbers on the Bibles has also upset many Christians.

By right, these Bibles should have been released in Sarawak without any conditions since the state does not have an enactment prohibiting the use of the word “Allah” among non-Muslims. Muslims in Sarawak are also used to the word being used by churches and it has never been an issue for them.

In short, if it is not an issue in Sabah and Sarawak, why is there a need to complicate the matter?

We do not have to be experts of the Constitution to know that state enactments cannot supersede the Federal Constitution. That is why the PAS-led Kelantan government cannot ban the sale of lottery tickets as it is provided for nationwide under federal law.

Religion may be state matters but the Federal Constitution reigns supreme with the guarantee of freedom to profess and practise one’s religion (Article 11).

There is a need for clearer guidelines. In Selangor, non-Muslims cannot use “Allah” but the word is in the state anthem. The police crest, which is worn by non-Muslims, also has the word “Allah”.

In fact, the decision to stamp the words “For Christians Only” could well be unconstitutional. The Federal Constitution is very clear on the right of Malaysians to religious freedom, even though there are laws that may control or restrict the propagation of any religious doctrine or belief among Muslims.

But there is no evidence that these imported Bibles would be used to propagate to Muslims. By putting conditions such as serial numbers and stamping “For Christians Only” on the Bibles, the authorities could well be exceeding their powers and even infringe the Federal Constitution.

If indeed these Bibles have been stamped, then there is a need to cover these words with stickers that say “Christian Publications”.

While there are certain laws that control or restrict the propagation of any religious belief or doctrine among Muslims, there are no such restrictions to people of other faiths or who are free thinkers.

To limit the Bible with a “For Christians Only” chop would deprive these others of access to the Bible. It would mean limiting their constitutional right to profess and practise their religion.

A better way out of this deadlock would be to use the words “Christian Publications”, which was reportedly accepted by all parties in 2005.

It is not clear whether the agreement was in writing, and why the change now, but there has to be a quick and amicable solution too. Religion is highly sensitive and the Home Ministry is right in reminding the media to be cautious. But rational reporting should be accepted and even encouraged. There’s a need to remove the emotive elements in the controversy. While the move to number and stamp the Bible may not be right, to claim that these are moves to “deface” or “desecrate” the Holy Book could be too emotive as well.

Without doubt, feelings have been hurt as this involves a sacred book. However, Bibles are sometimes stamped with the names of donors and, in some cases, they are also personalised to the owner’s style.

But when the stamping is done by the authorities, it takes on a different dimension.

The impasse is best resolved quickly. There is already an appeal to overturn a High Court decision allowing the Catholic Herald to use the word “Allah” in their Christian publications, of which there is no conclusion in sight. If a court challenge is made over the stamping and serial numbering, it would aggravate the situation.

There are no winners when religious disputes go to court. It is better resolved outside but there has to be sincerity from all sides as there cannot be ad hoc decisions and non-compliance to agreements. The church and the authorities have got to move on.

In this season of Lent, as we pray and prepare ourselves for Easter with repentance, fasting, spiritual discipline and moderation, let us remind ourselves that the Bible only comes alive because of our faith. The Bible, in the most perfect condition, will remain useless if it is just left on the shelf, untouched.