KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, JAN. 6, 2010 (Zenit.org).- A Malaysian bishop is underlining the rights of minority religions faced to the controversy over a ban prohibiting non-Muslims from using the word "Allah."
Bishop Paul Tan Chee Ing of the Melaka-Johor Diocese in Malaysia told ZENIT that the controversy over the use of the word "Allah," as well as other Arabic words, is "not a linguistic battle."
Rather, he said, it is a political "battle for votes."
On Dec. 31, the Kuala Lumpur High Court overruled the ban, which was instated three years ago, affirming that it was unconstitutional and that the word "Allah" is not exclusive to Islam. It granted the Catholic Herald, which was using the word as a translation for God in the Malay language section of the periodical, permission to print "Allah."
However, today the decision was suspended after days of protests. Meanwhile, the Home Ministry is appealing the act in an attempt to uphold the ban.
Muslim groups are protesting that Christians and other minorities should not use "Allah" for "fear of confusing Muslims," the Herald reported today.
Muslims constitute some 60% of the country's 28 million people.
Bishop Paul Tan Chee Ing explained that the debate has a definite political tone, as the ruling party "is afraid of losing the Malay votes, which make up of about 60% of the population."
He added, "In Malaysia, unfortunately, Malay is identified with Muslims -- the only country in the world where religion is tied to a race in the constitution."
Yet in the Quran, the bishop pointed out, "it is said that Jews, Christians, Sabeans and Muslims worship Allah."
He continued: "How can a Muslim go against its Holy Quran? Not possible.
"It is due to sheer ignorance or due to some political expediency. Any objective scholar can tell you that the word 'Allah' is pre-Islamic. It has its root in the Semitic language."
Not all Malay-Muslims are against non-Muslims using the word, Bishop Tan Chee Ing clarified, as long as it is not being "abused."
Those who are sparking the controversy, he said, are acting "due to ignorance or motivated by political biases or for some personal gains."
The "public declaration that non-Muslims can use the word 'Allah' is a contradiction to what the National Fatwa Council issued," the bishop affirmed, and "contradiction is another game for playing politics."
In the midst of this, he said, "the Church's stand should be calm, firm in its stand for the rights of non-Muslims as enshrined in our federal constitution."
We must "cooperate with all reasonable persons, try to keep harmony by not provoking the other side with words or actions and not putting them down those who want to stop non-Muslims from using the word," the prelate said.
"It is a tightrope walk," he affirmed.
Bishop Tan Chee Ing told ZENIT that despite the current issues, the Church in his country is "very stable, united and strong."
"Our ecumenical movement and interreligious cooperation have been good in spite of a few hiccups here and there," he said.
Although statistics are showing that the Catholic population is stagnant in numbers, the bishop acknowledged, this is due to the fact that "Chinese and Indian Catholics tend to have fewer children than the Malays."
As well, he continued, "their children are sent abroad to study because of discrimination against them in the universities and many of them do not return to Malaysia because of the fear of being discriminated."
Stand for truth
"In spite of all this," the prelate affirmed, "the churches are generally full to their capacity with men, women and children."
He continued: "It is a vibrant Church. The local Church has been reaching out to help other poorer dioceses in other countries."
Bishop Tan Chee Ing reported that the people of his diocese, "in spite of the fact that we are not rich," has been sending money to the Church in Kenya, Myanmar and Laos.
"This is in imitation of the earliest Catholic Church during the apostolic times," he affirmed.
The prelate continued: "We have also cooperated with the Protestants and even the Buddhists, Sikhs and Hindus.
"The one contribution we can offer to the Universal Church is standing up for the truth and the rights of people against all odds because we know that God who is the Lord of history, sees and knows all and will in his time and in his way right what is wrong. Patience!"