THE Federal Court’s final decision on the Herald case is a disappointing outcome of the Catholic Church’s legal battle over its right to use the word “Allah” in its publication.
It also raises serious concerns that the ruling will have far-reaching implications, not only for the Catholic weekly but the Christian community at large, especially those in Sarawak and Sabah who have long used “Allah” in Bahasa Malaysia or indigenous languages in their Bibles, worship and prayer.
Commenting on the decision, Association of Churches in Sarawak (ACS) chairman Archbishop Datuk Bolly Lapok said its ramifications were likely to go beyond the Herald case and affect bumiputra Christians.
“The Federal Court decision is confined to the Herald case only. Case resolved? I am not too sure. I hope in the process we have not mired ourselves in greater complication,” he said in a statement.
Bolly, who is also Archbishop of the Anglican Province of South-East Asia, added that the word “Allah” was embedded in the languages and cultures of non-Muslim natives of Peninsular Malaysia, Sarawak and Sabah.
“It seems the natives, who should receive more help and protection, are the ones who are affected the most by this decision.
“Political expediency has prevailed over common sense, over what is universally right. In this case, clearly it has not been the Herald or the church but Malaysia that has been on trial before a watching world.”
Sarawak PKR chairman Baru Bian said it was a pity that the apex court declined to hear the appeal on substantive issues and dismissed the Catholic Church’s application for leave to appeal the Court of Appeal’s decision, which he said was legally unsustainable in the opinion of many lawyers and academicians.
“One would have thought that this being a case of enormous public interest and international attention, the Federal Court would have taken the opportunity to hear the appeal and to hand down a decision supported by cogent, incisive and judicious reasoning.
“Alas, we are deprived of the benefit of the wisdom of the highest legal minds of this country,” he said.
Baru also said the result of the long-drawn-out case would leave a public perception of unfairness, whatever the reasons given by the judges for the dismissal.
“It is my hope that the issue will be revisited in another case at another time by a different panel so that this matter, which is of such great importance to the people of this country, can be ventilated in depth and at length in the highest court of the land.
“The Bahasa Malaysia-speaking Christians in this country deserve better than what has been dished out to them,” he added.
Herald editor Father Lawrence Andrew, while expressing disappointment with the decision, hoped that the rights of minorities to profess their faith would be upheld.
“We hope and pray that the rights of the minorities will not be trampled upon, that their rights will be taken as sacred, because in our understanding God cares for the poor, the oppressed and the marginalised.
“We pray that minority rights become a concern and that our conscience will open to the reality of the poor and underprivileged.”
Father Lawrence described the case as an important constitutional case as it concerned the right to profess one’s faith, adding that the Church would continue to publish the Herald’s Bahasa Malaysia edition for the sizeable bumiputra, Peranakan and Orang Asli Christians in the country.
As these comments show, the Federal Court’s decision in this case will not necessarily be limited to the Herald only but has consequences for Christians and Malaysians as a whole with regard to the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom.
We must uphold the Federal Constitution and all its provisions, including the ones on religious freedom, in order to safeguard peace and harmony in the nation.
Already some fringe Muslim groups are calling on the Herald to stop using Bahasa Malaysia and for Christians to convert if they want to use “Allah”.
Such calls, though they come from a radical minority, do no good at all for inter-faith relations and go against the spirit of harmony and tolerance that we espouse in our society.
Hopefully saner voices will prevail and this matter will not be left as it is but be reconsidered in order to seek a resolution in accordance with the Constitution and address the perceptions of unfairness and political expediency that surround the decision.
In the meantime let us keep working towards living together in peace and harmony with fellow Malaysians and rejecting intolerance among us.