KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Adding to the furor over whether non-Muslims have the right to use the word “Allah” in their publications and religious practice, on January 11 online news agency Malaysiakini reported that officials confiscated English-language Christian children’s books because they contained images of prophets.
The government reportedly said Internal Security Ministry officials confiscated the books because their illustrations of prophets offended the sensitivities of Muslims. Islam, which shares some prophets in common with Christianity, prohibits the portrayal of prophets.
Enforcement officials of the Publications and Al-Quran Texts Control Department under the Internal Security Ministry, headed by Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, reportedly confiscated the books from three MPH bookstores in Johor Bahru, Senawang and Ipoh in mid-December. The books have been sent to the department’s headquarters in Putrajaya for investigation. Managers of the MPH bookstores reportedly said they will wait for the Internal Security Ministry’s decision on the books.
In a statement released yesterday (January 17) , the Rev. Dr. Hermen Shastri, general-secretary of the Council of Churches Malaysia questioned how the books could be offensive to Muslims when they were not meant for them.
In the strongly worded statement about the seizures, Shastri said government officials “have no right and have overstepped their bounds by confiscating Christian literature.” He urged the prime minister and his Cabinet to take immediate action to put a stop to such seizures and to “amend administrative rules and regulations especially in the Internal Security Ministry that give a free hand to enforcement officials to act at their whim and fancies.”
At the same time, the debate over whether non-Muslims can use the word “Allah” in publications and religious practice was stoked when the Internal Security Ministry told the Sun on Wednesday (January 16) that it had confiscated a total of 163 publications comprising 18 titles from bookshops nationwide. A ministry official told the daily that the seizures were made because the word “Allah” was used in the books. But Deputy Internal Ministry Minister Johari Baharum reportedly said that the ministry did not target Christian books.
“We do routine checks all year long,” he said. “We don’t only seize Christian books, but other [religious] books as well.”
The deputy minister said use of the words, “Allah” (Arabic for God), “baitullah” (mosque in Mecca), “solat” (prayer) and “kaabah” (Islamic shrine in Mecca) are exclusive to Islam, according to Gazette PU (A) 15/82 and circular KKDN S.59/3/6/A dated December 5, 1986. In a letter to the press, Gayathry Venkiteswaran, executive director of the Centre for Independent Journalism, argued that “seizing more than the needed copies for investigation while the titles are not banned, denies the right of the people to access the book and is clearly high-handed.”
The right of non-Muslims to use the word “Allah” in their publications and practice of their religion is being tested in two court cases by the publisher of the Herald, a Catholic newspaper, and the Evangelical Church of Borneo (Sidang Injil Borneo).
-Jasmine Kay, Compass Direct News