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Should Christians be allowed to say 'Allah' in Malaysia?

A recent court case over a Catholic newspaper's use of the term 'Allah' has become a litmus test of tolerance in the multifaith country. Christians and Muslims in Malaysia have both long prayed to 'Allah.'

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Father Andrew Lawrence pulls a fat red binder from a shelf inside his cramped office, where he edits a weekly Roman Catholic newspaper. Inside the binder are reams of documents from its decade-long dispute with Malaysia's government over the right to refer to God as "Allah," as Muslims do.

For a small paper like the Herald (circulation: 14,000), such a legal case can be ruinous. But the row has spiraled into a litmus test of tolerance and political maturity in this multifaith country of 28 million people.

The "Allah" row stirs strong emotions here in part because it is as much about race and language – and politics – as it is about religion. It also exposes the historical divisions between west and east Malaysia, where the majority of the country's roughly 1.4 million Roman Catholics live.

On Dec. 31, the Herald won a three-year battle in the High Court, which overturned a government ban on its use of "Allah." The verdict sparked small protests by Malay Muslims and a spate of attacks on Catholic churches, a Sikh temple, and three mosques, allegedly by Muslim agitators.

The government has obtained an injunction and appealed the verdict, arguing that the ban is essential for national security.

For centuries, Christian Malay speakers have prayed to Allah, the Arabic word for God. In neighboring Indonesia, a majority Muslim country with a near-identical language, the use of "Allah" by Christians is uncontroversial, as it is across much of the Middle East.

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