After landmark ‘Allah’ ruling, Sarawak human rights fighter urges state, Putrajaya to review all religious policies

Sulok Tawie
·4-min read
Human rights activist Peter John Jaban says the Sarawak and federal governments should review all policies and directives relating to religious freedom and ensure they are in line with the Malaysian Constitution. — Picture by Sulok Tawie
Human rights activist Peter John Jaban says the Sarawak and federal governments should review all policies and directives relating to religious freedom and ensure they are in line with the Malaysian Constitution. — Picture by Sulok Tawie

KUCHING, March 13 ― The Sarawak and federal governments should review all policies and directives relating to religious freedom and ensure they are in line with the Malaysian Constitution, a local human rights activist Peter John Jaban said today.

He made the call following the High Court decision this week quashing the 1986 federal government circular on the use of the name “Allah” in Christian publications.

“Religion has long been used as a divisive issue in Malaysia, not so much among the people but as a political tool.

“It runs through multiple aspects of Malaysia’s institutional life, from the mandatory conversion on marriage to public display of religious symbols, all the way down to allocation of public funding and our choice of leader,” Jaban said in a statement.

“The message from the court’s ruling, however, it is clear that Malaysia respects and represents freedom of religion, which is enshrined in our constitution and it is the basis on which this nation is built,” he said.

He said the Malaysian government should look to the Federal Constitution as its guiding principle in all other legislations and practices, especially relating to Articles 3, 8, 11 and 12.

He added the word “Allah” has been used by the people of all faiths worldwide for centuries.

He said that thousands of churches in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, are called “Gereja Allah”.

“For many years, the Christian natives of Sabah and Sarawak have been using the word, imported from an Arabic, in their daily worship.

“It was only in the last forty years that the Malaysian government has decided to legislate the use of language in this way. But the court’s ruling tells us that this is a clear departure from the shared basis of our nation,” he said.

Jaban also welcomed any appeal in the Federal Court on the High Court’s judgment, saying that the apex court’s ruling and precedent should be set.

“The judiciary, sworn to uphold the primacy and integrity of the Constitution, should lead the way. But this should not stop at this one circular,” he said, adding the Federal Court should also look at the legislations, directives, and circulars that touched on the rights of the Christians.

Jaban also called on the government of Sarawak, Malaysia’s only non-Muslim majority state, to speak out on this issue.

“It is time for them to show the way in reviewing their legislation. They shouldn’t wait to be directed by the courts.

“It is time for Malaysia to be reborn as it was originally intended that people of all religions, races, descents, places of birth or genders are free from religious discrimination and equal under the law,” he said.

On March 10, Court of Appeal Judge Datuk Nor Bee Ariffin, sitting as High Court judge, allowed a judicial review application by Sarawakian Jill Ireland Lawrence Bill on a 1986 circular that banned the Christians from using the word “Allah” in their publications.

The judge ruled that the ban on the use of the word “Allah” in Christian publications was unconstitutional and invalid.

It also declared orders to affirm Jill Ireland’s right to not be discriminated against and practice her faith.

The judge granted three of the specific constitutional reliefs sought by the Sarawakian native of the Melanau tribe.

The three orders granted by the judge include a declaration that it is Jill Ireland’s constitutional right under the Federal Constitution’s Article 3, 8, 11, and 12 to import the publications in the exercise of her rights to practise religion and right to education.

The other two declarations granted by the judge today are that a declaration under Article 8 that Jill Ireland is guaranteed equality of all persons before the law and is protected from discrimination against citizens on the grounds of religion in the administration of the law ― specifically the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 and Customs Act 1967), and a declaration that government.

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