After a seven-year legal battle, Malaysia’s courts finally ruled against him. As of Jan. 21, Rev. Lawrence Andrew no longer can call God by the name “Allah” in his Catholic weekly newspaper, the Herald.
In a country of 30 million people that is 60 percent Muslim, the courts agreed “Allah” in the Herald would confuse Muslim Malays and promote the faith among them. In a country only 58 years old, where the word, which predates Islam, has been used by Christians for hundreds of years, the courts decided “Allah” belongs to Muslims only.
If you think Rev. Andrew would be angry about the outcome, if you think he would be dispirited by headlines such as “Last nail in Catholic Church’s Allah case,” you’d be wrong.
“We can cope with it. We will continue publishing the Herald without using the word Allah,” the unassuming priest told World Watch Monitor.
“This experience could lead us to dialogue in a better environment and bring about the goodness of humankind and the love there is in our hearts for one another.”
Rev. Lawrence Andrew
Andrew pastors 1,000 parishioners at St Anne’s Church in Port Klang, in the state of Selangor, where he holds an evening service every day after his daily commute from the Herald’s office in Kuala Lumpur. In an open letter published in the Herald days after the court’s decision, he sounded upbeat:
“The court rooms of Malaysia have produced eight written judgments on the Herald Allah case, four of which were in our favour, or in support of us, while four were against us. Did we lose the case then? Not at all! It was a draw!”
The legal saga began in in 2009, two years after the Home Affairs Minister banned the Herald from using “Allah” to make reference to God. It ended Jan. 21, when the Federal Court of Malaysia ruled that an earlier federal court ruling against the newspaper was proper and could not be challenged.
In-between, Andrew endured death threats, graffiti was smeared outside churches, and protesters burned Bibles and Andrew’s effigy. A body guard was assigned to shadow the 70-year-old Jesuit priest.
“I just had to compose myself and carry on,” he said.
Though his legal challenge to the ban ultimately failed, Andrew said the country is better for having witnessed the struggle.
“We are happy to have gone as far as possible, and as high as to the Federal Court, as we did, he said. “The judgments will speak volumes and the court procedures will show what transpired. I’m happy it is all in the open.”
“We have gained much from this whole saga,” echoed Most Rev. Julian Leow, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur, in a pastoral letter released after the final court ruling. “We need to make a stand on the side of justice and truth. We need to protect the rights of the minority and the voiceless. We need to engage and to dialogue with the ignorant and bring about understanding.”
Andrew expressed a kind of relief in the legal defeat, going so far as to suggest a Herald victory might have prompted violent backlash against Christians and their churches. He congratulated his lawyers for “defending our right to practice our faith unhindered,” and even credited the Islamic Religious Council for putting up a spirited fight in the courtroom.
“This could be seen as an inter-faith dialogue experience,” he said. “This experience could lead us to dialogue in a better environment and bring about the goodness of humankind and the love there is in our hearts for one another.”
Andrew said he remains hopeful that Malaysia’s constitutional guarantee of religious freedom will be upheld in separate court cases. In recent months the Court of Appeal declared as unconstitutional a ban on cross-dressing by transgendered people. Muslim authorities are appealing.
Separately, Jill Ireland, a Sarawakian Christian, is seeking a court ruling permitting the use of the word “Allah” on her spiritual CDs, which were seized in 2008 as she attempted to bring them into the country from Indonesia. In July 2014 the High Court ordered the Home Affairs Ministry to return the discs to her but refused to address her constitutional question on the right to use the word. The government refused, and has appealed. In a counter-suit, Ireland seeks a resolution on the constitutionality on using “Allah.”
For his part, Rev. Andrew is facing a police investigation for emphasizing that Catholic churches in Selangor state would continue to use “Allah” to refer to God.
On this point, the priest and his lawyers remain adamant: the ruling on the Allah term is confined to the Herald.
“I brought this case. It only applies to the Herald,” Andrew said. He refuses to heed attempts by Islamic religious groups seeking to extend the remit of the ruling to cover all aspects of Christian worship in the Malay language.
“We will not entertain them,” he said.
Church leaders say they take some comfort in the Government’s declaration that the decision of the Court of Appeal is confined to the Herald’s case.
“We shall therefore take the Government at its word,” Archbishop Leow said in his pastoral letter. “In no way does [the court decision] include a prohibition in our Holy Scripture, the Al-Kitab, as well as in our praise and worship during the celebration of the Holy Mass and prayer sessions.”
“For now,” Andrew said, “we can only put our faith in the Government, which has given its verbal support that we can use the word Allah in prayers and worship.
“But this support is verbal; it has no legal value, and so can change at any time. For now, though, it has bought us a bit of freedom.”