Sarawak Christian free to use ‘Allah’ in religious education

(FMT) – After 13 years and 12 adjournments, the High Court, in a landmark ruling, has allowed a judicial review application by Sarawakian Christian Jill Ireland that she can use the word “Allah” in her religious education.

Judge Noor Bee Ariffin said a Dec 5, 1986, home ministry directive to prohibit the use of the words “Allah”, “Baituallah”, “Solat” and “Kaabah” by non-Muslims was illegal and unconstitutional.

The judge said the directive was wrongly issued as it went beyond the aim of the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984.

“The law is only to check on undesirable publications. It is not a general law to check on public order, public health and morality,” she said.

Noor Bee, who took 90 minutes to read her grounds of judgment, said that as such, the directive to prevent non-Muslims from using the four words was set aside.

She said Ireland had the constitutional right to use and import any publications for her religious education.

“Under Article 8 of the Federal Constitution, the applicant is guaranteed to practice her faith without discrimination,” the judge said.

Ireland, a Melanau Christian, filed her judicial review in 2008 but her constitutional challenge was heard in 2017.

This judgment has been adjourned 12 times for parties to seek an out-of-court solution to the use of the term Allah for East Malaysians and in publication materials.

In 2008, Customs’ officers at KLIA seized from Ireland eight CDs entitled “Cara Hidup Dalam Kerajaan Allah”, “Hidup Benar Dalam Kerajaan Allah” and “Ibadah Yang Benar Dalam Kerajaan Allah”.

Initially, she filed the action to reclaim the CDs, seeking several declaratory reliefs as well.

In 2014, the High Court ordered the home ministry to return the CDs to her but did not address the constitutional points as it was bound by a Federal Court ruling.

The following year, the Court of Appeal upheld the High Court ruling but ordered it to hear Ireland’s application for a declaration that her constitutional right to practise her religion was violated by the restriction or ban of the import of educational material.

Noor Bee, who is now a Court of Appeal judge, said the Cabinet under then prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad did not impose a total ban on the four words but the home ministry exceeded its authority in 1986.

She said the word Allah then could be used by the church provided any publication was only for Christians.

“It is the ministry that has acted unreasonably, illegally and irrationally,” she said.

Noor Bee said it could not be disputed that the ban affected Christians in Sabah and Sarawak as they have been using the word Allah in place of God for a long time.

“The usage had not caused a threat to public order and national security,” she said, adding that the Christian community in both states had been using Allah for about 400 years.

Noor Bee said Ireland had also presented affidavits from three Muslims that they were not confused by Christians using the word Allah in their churches and religious education.

The judge said a 10-point solution which came into being in 2011 also demonstrated the government’s commitment to religious tolerance and to neutralise the 1986 impugned directive.

“When the 10-point solution was around, the government could have withdrawn the directive and the present problem would not have been an issue,” she said.

The 10-point solution was a Cabinet policy decision to resolve issues pertaining to the importation, printing, distribution and usage of the Bible in Sabah, Sarawak and the peninsula.

That decision, among others, imposed no restriction on Christians from Sabah and Sarawak to carry with them Bibles that contained the word Allah, provided the holy scriptures include the words “Christian Publication”.

Noor Bee also said the ministry did not provide any affidavit in support of claims that there was public disorder and a threat to national security when Christians use Allah for religious purposes.

Lawyer Lim Heng Seng told reporters that today’s ruling demonstrated the court was prepared to uphold the supremacy of the constitution and the rule of law.

Counsel Annou Xavier assisted Lim while senior federal counsel Shamsul Bolhassan represented the home minister and the government.