In recent weeks, Malaysian priest Lawrence Andrew has been burned in effigy, investigated for sedition and denounced by Muslims in a spiralling dispute over whether Malay-speaking Christians can use “Allah” to refer to their God.
No one is more taken aback by this than Andrew, a bookish, cheerful 68-year-old Jesuit who has become a reluctant symbol for religious equality in the Muslim-majority nation.
“I never asked for this,” Andrew, an ethnic Indian, said before recent Sunday services at his church in a scruffy section of the port city Klang.
“It didn’t even cross my mind. Our programme is all about love.”
Andrew was thrust into the spotlight in Malaysia’s often tense inter-religious relations in 2007 when the government ordered the Catholic weekly Herald to stop using the Arabic word “Allah” in its Malay section.
Andrew founded the thin, 15,000-circulation paper – which also has English, Chinese and Tamil sections – in 1994.
He still edits it in a modest office in Kuala Lumpur shared with a Catholic bookstore.
The Herald challenged the ban, and the ongoing see-saw legal battle triggered a spate of attacks in 2010 on places of worship – mostly churches – including with petrol bombs.
Tensions are rising yet again in the multi-faith country as conservative Muslims take up the “Allah” cause.
“There is a lot of noise in the streets,” Andrew told about 500 Catholics in the bright-white concrete church.
“So as we gather here today, we need to become more aware of who we are, and what we are.”
Muslims make up 60 percent of multi-ethnic Malaysia’s 28 million people, while Christians account for about nine percent.
Christians say Malay-language Bibles have used “Allah” to refer to God for hundreds of years and complain of increasing pressure from the Muslim majority.
“It’s not fair. We can’t be told how to practise our religion,” said Soosai Dass, a Catholic.
“Father Lawrence is willing to say things that others won’t.”
The Christian Federation of Malaysia says 64 percent of believers “have no other language for their Bible”.
Malaysia’s constitution guarantees non-Muslims freedom of religion.
But Islamic conservatives have invoked a bewildering array of laws, decrees, and religious rules to press their demand that “Allah” be off-limits for non-Muslims.
Islamic officials on January 2 sparked concern by confiscating more than 300 Bibles in Selangor, Malaysia’s most populous state, citing a seldom-enforced rule restricting use of the word by non-Muslims.
Earlier this month police began investigating Andrew for sedition after he said Selangor church sermons would continue using “Allah” despite a recent decree by the state’s sultan forbidding it.
Sedition is punishable by three years in prison.
“Allah is a sacred word specifically for Islam and Muslims, and cannot be used” by other faiths, Malaysia’s top official Islamic body said in a sermon late last year.
Andrew declines detailed comment on the fracas due to its sensitivity.
“I don’t want to speak bad about anyone. It’s a confusion of minds that is happening, that’s all, and it needs to be clarified,” said the priest, who alternates between priestly solemnity and a wide, toothy smile.
Christian groups have called on Prime Minister Najib Razak, a Malay Muslim, to speak out to calm the row.
Najib, however, avoids antagonising his party’s influential right wing. His office declined a request for comment, as did officials with key religious departments.
Malaysia’s opposition and conspiracy-obsessed social media, however, allege that conservatives in Najib’s Malay-dominated ruling party are fanning the issue to divert attention from rising prices, ebbing voter support, and other problems.
“There is either a lack of political will or this fits the agenda to create instability to distract and justify hardline reactions,” said senior opposition figure Lim Kit Siang.
Relatively prosperous and stable, Malaysia has avoided overt religious conflict in recent decades.
But the 57-year-old regime is regularly accused of playing the race-religion card to stay in power, and many Christians complain of a steady Islamisation as the ruling party and opposition have vied for Muslim support.
Andrew is the son of a Catholic immigrant former rubber plantation manager from India’s Kerala state.
Like many minorities, Andrew speaks wistfully of a tolerant, bygone Malaysia where races readily mixed.
“We saw ourselves as friends,” he said. “But from the 1970s, very slowly, there was a segregation taking place.”
In October, an appeals court sided against the Herald, overturning an earlier judgement.
The newspaper has appealed to Malaysia’s highest court, which hears the case on March 5.
“Looking back, I can say with confidence that this is the way God has marked for me,” Andrew said, reading aloud a recent text message on his phone that he sent to fellow Malaysian clergy and supporters.
“Now my remaining life depends on Him.” AFP