KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Malaysia's top court on Monday upheld a government ban forbidding non-Muslims from using "Allah" to refer to God, rejecting an appeal by the Roman Catholic Church that argued that the law failed to consider the rights of minorities in the largely Muslim nation.
Although the Malaysian constitution guarantees freedom of religion, the 4-3 decision by the Federal Court is expected to reinforce complaints from Christians, Buddhist and Hindu minorities that non-Muslims do not always get fair treatment from the government and courts — accusations the government denies.
"We are disappointed. The four judges who denied us the right to appeal did not touch on fundamental basic rights of minorities?," said Rev. Lawrence Andrew, editor of The Herald, the newspaper at the center of the controversy.
"It will confine the freedom of worship," he added. "We are a minority in this country, and when our rights are curtailed, people feel it."
Allah is the Arabic word for God and commonly used in the Malay language to refer to God. The court had ruled that Catholic Church had no grounds to appeal a lower court decision last year that kept it from using "Allah" in its Malay-language weekly publication.
The government says Allah should be reserved exclusively for Muslims — who make up nearly two-thirds of the country's 29 million people — because if other religions use it that could confuse Muslims and lead them to convert.
Christian representatives deny this, arguing that the ban is unreasonable because Christians who speak the Malay language have long used the word in their Bibles, prayers and songs before authorities sought to enforce the curb in recent years. Christians make up about 9 percent of the population, with many living in the eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak on Borneo Island.
The ban appears to apply mostly to published materials, not spoken words, and newspapers using the term would lose their license. Imported Malay-language Bibles containing the term Allah, typically from Indonesia, already have been blocked. Beyond that, it wasn't clear what the punishment would be for violating the ban.
Human Rights Watch said it reflected dwindling religious tolerance in Malaysia.
"This is a sad state of affairs that shows how far and fast religious tolerance is falling in Malaysia. The Malaysian government should be working to promote freedom of religion rather politically exploiting religious wedge issues like long-standing Christian use of the word 'Allah' in Malay texts," said Phil Robertson, a spokesman for the organization.
Over the years, the controversy has provoked violence in Malaysia.
Anger over a lower court ruling against the government ban in 2009 led to a string of arson attacks and vandalism at churches and other places of worship. A 2013 judgment by the Court of Appeals reversed that decision, which the Catholic church appealed to the Federal Court.
An umbrella group of Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox churches in Malaysia said Christians will continue to use the word Allah in their Bibles and worship, saying the court ruling was only confined to the Catholic newspaper.
"We maintain that the Christian community continues to have the right to use the word 'Allah' in our Bibles, church services and Christian gatherings," Rev. Eu Hong Seng, chairman of the Christian Federation of Malaysia, said in a statement.
Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told reporters he welcomed the ruling, but said he hoped no parties would politicize the matter and use it to divide races.
"This is an emotional issue that can affect the country's (racial) harmony. We must handle it with wisdom," he said. "The court has made a decision, so let's accept it."
Some experts believe the Allah issue is an attempt by Prime Minister Najib Razak's ruling Malay party to strengthen its conservative Muslim voter base. Religion has become an easy tool because government policies have made Islam and Malay identity inseparable.
"This is a situation that is peculiar to Malaysia. It is tied to politics and the identity of Malays. It is a bending of the interpretation of Islam to suit Malay politics and Malay interests," said Ibrahim Suffian, who heads the Merdeka Center opinion research company.
The issue hasn't surfaced in other majority Muslim nations with sizeable Christian minorities.
In Egypt, where about 10 percent of the population is Christian, both Muslims and Christians refer to God as "Allah," and this hasn't generated any controversy or antagonism. Christians often refer to God as "al-Rab" in their liturgy, but use "Allah" more frequently in their daily life.
The same is true for Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation. Both groups use "Allah" — although Christians pronounce it "Al-lah" and Muslims say "Al-loh," so you can tell which religion the speaker is — but this hasn't caused friction.
"My question is, if in other countries, 'Allah' as a term for God is not made exclusive, I am surprised how come the use of the term can be limited by any religion elsewhere in the world," said Fr. Francis Lucas, president of the Catholic Media Network Corp., the broadcast arm of the Catholic Church in the Philippines.
Associated Press Writers Niniek Karmini in Jakarta, Jim Gomez in Manila, Maamoun Youssef in Cairo, Amir Bibawy in New York and Malcolm Foster in Bangkok contributed to this report.
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