Once again, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak has chosen to open up on a touchy subject in Malaysia while travelling abroad, defending the court ruling which effectively banned Christians here from using the word Allah.
He said that the curb against the Catholic weekly, Herald, using the word Allah was necessary to protect public security and national harmony, going as far to describe the Herald as a publication with wide circulation.
The Herald publishes 14,000 copies every week and all are sold within the confines of churches.
In an interview with Reuters in London, Najib said: "People must understand that there are sensitivities in Malaysia, but what is important is public security and national harmony."
The prime minister also said that the Court of Appeal decision only covered the Catholic Herald and that the government would not stop people using the word in predominantly Christian areas.
"With respect to the court ruling it only applies to the Herald paper, which has got wide circulation, and doesn't apply to the situation in Sabah and Sarawak.
"So what we are trying to do objectively and above all is to ensure stability and national harmony," he said on the sidelines of the World Islamic Economic Forum.
Najib's interpretation of the Court of Appeal's decision does not square with what Christian leaders, constitutional law experts and former attorney general Tan Sri Abu Talib Othman have said about the effect of the October 14 decision.
Critics of the court's decision argued that the judges' decision that Allah was not an integral part of Christian worship carries wider consequences beyond the Catholic Herald.
Putrajaya has attempted to placate Christians in Sabah and Sarawak – an important vote bank for Barisan Nasional – by stressing that the court decision does not stop them from using the word Allah when worshipping but this concession has not appeased church leaders who point out that many East Malaysians now live and work in West Malaysia.
Christian leaders also have pointed out that Christians have used the word Allah for over 100 years, certainly way before the independence of the country in 1957, and done so without causing any confusion among Muslims or disharmony in the country.
Najib's comments on the Allah court decision at least gives Malaysians an insight into his position on the ruling. So far, he has only assured East Malaysians that a 10-point plan to resolve outstanding
issues involving Christians is still intact.
A key component of that plan, unveiled by the government in 2011, allows the import of Malay-language bibles which contain the word Allah.
Najib generally stays clear of controversial subjects and rarely has press conferences at home where he speaks on a range of issues.
This is in contrast to Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad who took on all questions, from the mundane to the serious, from the press when he was the PM.
In September, Najib had told the United Nations General Assembly that there was a need for al-wasatiyyah, or the practice of moderation, as a key tool in fighting extremism despite moves to restrict the spread of Shia Islam in Malaysia.
Mainly Muslim Malaysia follows mainstream Sunni Islam teachings but a number of Malays have been persecuted for being Shias. Islam is a state matter but the federal religious authorities also play a large role in regulating religious affairs.
Critics said the prime minister should have denounced such restrictions which include raids and arrests, adding it went against his call for moderation. – November 1, 2013.