Malaysian Islamic authorities on Thursday seized hundreds of Bibles from a Christian group and detained two of their officers, one of them said, amid tensions over the use of “Allah”.
A court in October barred a Malaysian Catholic newspaper from using “Allah” to refer to the Christian God in its Malay-language edition – a verdict welcomed by Muslim conservatives, but which sparked concern among Christians, a minority in the multi-faith country.
After the verdict, Prime Minister Najib Razak, walking a tightrope between pleasing his conservative Muslim ethnic Malay base without alienating the country’s non-Muslim minorities, assured Christians their practice would not be threatened.
But Islamic officials from central Selangor state, just next to the capital Kuala Lumpur, on Thursday seized 16 boxes containing more than 300 Bibles from the Bible Society of Malaysia, the society’s president Lee Min Choon said.
Lee said he and a colleague were also detained “under a state law, which prohibits the use of the word Allah by non-Muslims”.
The seized Bibles, imported from neighbouring Indonesia where Malay is also spoken, were in Malay and Iban, a language spoken by one of the country’s indigenous groups.
“We have been using them [the Bibles] ever since the society started [in 1985], and even before that,” Lee said from a mobile phone from a police station. “This is the first time we have been raided.”
It was not clear whether Lee and his colleague would continue to be held or charged. Officials from the Selangor Islamic Religious Department did not immediately return a request for comment.
The dispute over the use of “Allah” by non-Muslims erupted in early 2009, when the Home Ministry threatened to revoke the publishing permit of the Catholic newspaper the Herald for using the word.
Authorities said using “Allah” in non-Muslim literature could confuse Muslims and entice them to convert.
The Catholic Church sued, claiming violation of its constitutional rights.
A court upheld the Church’s argument later that year and lifted the ban. But a higher court overturned that ruling in October, reinstating the ban.
The ban’s removal triggered a series of attacks on places of worship in early 2010, mostly churches, using Molotov cocktails, rocks and paint, and sparked fears of wider religious conflict.
Muslims make up 60% of the country’s 28 million people, while Christians account for about 9%.
Malaysia has largely avoided overt religious conflict in recent decades, but tensions have slowly risen along with what many perceive as an increasing Islamisation of the Southeast Asian country.