Sabah church SIB drops court bid to quash govt’s 1986 ban on Christians using ‘Allah’

·8-min read
Malay Mail
Malay Mail

KUALA LUMPUR, May 17 — A Sabah church has decided not to continue with its court challenge against the Malaysian government's 1986 ban on the word "Allah" in Christian publications used by Bahasa Malaysia-speaking local adherents.

This court case was linked to the Home Ministry's 2007 decision to seize and withhold the release of the Sabah church's Christian educational materials which carried the word "Allah".

This marks the end of the Sabah church Sidang Injil Borneo's (SIB) 16-year-long legal challenge, which started after the Home Ministry initially refused in 2007 to return three boxes of books — which were not meant for sale and were only meant for the church's children — to SIB.

Based on Malay Mail's search yesterday of court documents in public records, SIB and its president Rev Datuk Jerry Dusing had on April 25 this year filed a notice of discontinuance for the court case.

With the notice of discontinuance, this means SIB has as of April 25 ended its entire court action against the home minister and the Malaysian government.

The notice of discontinuance did not state the reason why the Sabah church decided not to continue with its lawsuit.

The SIB case was one of three high-profile cases in Malaysia involving the government's ban on the use of the word "Allah" in Christian publications in Malaysia.

With SIB's dropping of the case, there are now no longer any outstanding court cases involving the local Bahasa Malaysia-speaking Christian community's right to use the word "Allah" in publications for Christians.

The word "Allah” is Arabic for God and had been adopted into the Malay language, and had been used for generations and hundreds of years by Malay-speaking Christians in the country — especially the natives or Bumiputera community of Sabah and Sarawak and Orang Asli in the peninsula — in the practice of their religion and professing of their faith.

Based on court documents obtained by Malay Mail through file search, the word "Allah" has been documented as having been used in Bahasa Malaysia and Bahasa Indonesia in Christian publications, including as early as in the year 1629 and in the first and second complete Bible in Malay in the years 1733 and 1879 and with continued use until today.

Events leading to the SIB court case

Here's what happened, based on court documents and news reports:

On August 15, 2007, an SIB staff member was flying from Indonesia back to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah with three boxes of educational materials for Christian children, but the Royal Malaysian Customs Department (RMCD) seized those boxes when the staff member was transiting at the Low-Cost Carrier Terminal (LCCT) airport at Sepang.

That same day, RMCD issued a notice to SIB, which said those detained educational materials would be referred to the Home Ministry.

Initially writing to the RMCD on August 16, 2007 and after being told that the publications had been handed over to the Home Ministry, SIB on August 24, 2007 wrote to the Home Ministry to ask for the return of the publications and explaining that the staff member was entrusted with bringing these books back to Sabah for educational use for the church's children.

Despite SIB stating that the publications were not for sale, the Home Ministry on September 10, 2007 replied that it had decided to reject the importing of the publications.

The Home Ministry said these seized publications were unsuitable for circulation in Malaysia — even if it was meant for education and circulation within the church — as they contained the word "Allah".

On October 24, 2007, the Home Ministry replied to SIB's September 20 appeal, with the ministry describing the government as having decided on May 19, 1986 that four words — "Allah, Kaabah, Solat and Baitullah" — are exclusive to Islam and cannot be used in non-Muslim publications except to explain Islamic concepts. The ministry said the government had through a December 5, 1986 circular informed this ban to Christian publishers.

Following a lengthy explanation on why SIB's boxes of materials had to be detained, the Home Ministry said all non-Muslim publications — whether imported or published in Malaysia — which have any of these words are prohibited from circulation in Malaysia.

Based on other court documents, the May 19, 1986 and December 5, 1986 government documents actually specified the prohibition of the word "Allah" in Christian publications, instead of in non-Muslim publications in general.

On December 10, 2007, SIB and its president then filed a legal challenge through a judicial review application at the High Court in Kuala Lumpur, naming the two respondents as the home minister and government of Malaysia and seeking 18 specific court orders.

Among other things, SIB was seeking for the court to quash the home minister's decision to refuse importation and withhold the Christian books, and to order the home minister to return the publications, along with multiple declarations on SIB's constitutional rights — including to use the word "Allah" in religious publications to educate their children about their religion.

What happened in the last 15 years?

On January 25, 2008, the Home Ministry returned the publications to SIB, allowing them to be distributed on the condition that the front page had to be stamped with the symbol of the "cross" and "Penerbitan Kristian" (Malay for "a Christian publication").

After the seized publications were returned to SIB, the Sabah church decided to only pursue 13 of the court orders it was seeking, which involved constitutional rights involving matters such as freedom of religion, equality before the law and prohibition of being discriminated against on the ground of religion.

For lawsuits filed through judicial review, the court would only proceed to hear the actual lawsuit, if it grants leave to hear the case.

The High Court in May 2014 did not grant SIB leave to have its lawsuit heard, but the Court of Appeal in October 2014 decided to grant leave and sent the case back to the High Court for a hearing on 16 court orders it sought.

The court orders that the Court of Appeal allowed SIB to pursue included declarations that the church and its Bahasa Malaysia-speaking members have the right to use the word "Allah" in the Malay and Indonesian translations of the Bible and in religious publications, in line with the constitutionally-guaranteed right to freedom of religion and also in the exercise of their right to instruct their children in their religion.

The SIB was also seeking declarations that its members could have access, own, use and import published materials — even with the word "Allah" — in the exercise of their freedom to practise their religion, as well as a declaration that the government's 1986 ban on the word "Allah" in non-Muslim publications is unconstitutional and invalid.

Before the High Court could start hearing SIB's lawsuit on its merits, the Federal Territories Islamic Religious Council (Maiwp) on August 11, 2015 applied to be an intervener in the lawsuit.

Maiwp was initially allowed in February 2016 to join the lawsuit, but the Court of Appeal on September 30, 2016 ruled that Maiwp could not intervene but could be amicus curiae or assist the court.

The High Court's hearing of the SIB's main lawsuit did not start immediately, as SIB was pursuing a related court application for the government to disclose and produce two sets of documents — including documents such as letters and meeting minutes containing the reasons for the government's 1986 ban of the word "Allah" in non-Muslim publications.

The High Court in October 2017 dismissed the SIB's bid for the documents as such documents were classified under the Official Secrets Act and as the court felt it was not necessary for such documents to be disclosed for judicial review, while the Court of Appeal in October 2020 dismissed the Sabah church’s appeal on the bid to have the documents disclosed.

By March 2021, SIB decided not to pursue the disclosure of the documents at the Federal Court, following the High Court's decision that month in a separate case involving a Sarawakian Bumiputera Christian — Jill Ireland Lawrence Bill — that quashed the government's 1986 ban on the word "Allah" in Christian publications.

SIB's main lawsuit or the judicial review later went through a series of case management throughout the years, and was initially scheduled to finally be heard in the High Court on May 29 this year. But the case has now been withdrawn as of April 25.

On Monday, it was reported that the home minister and Malaysian government had withdrawn their appeal at the Court of Appeal against the High Court's March 2021 decision in Jill Ireland's case. The appeal was withdrawn on April 18 this year.

In Jill Ireland's case, her eight compact discs — containing the word "Allah" in their titles and meant for her personal religious use — were seized in May 2008 at the LCCT airport upon her arrival from Indonesia. Ultimately, the High Court in 2021 ruled in her favour, but purely on legal and factual grounds without going into theology or religious debate.

As for the other case involving "Allah", the Home Ministry in 2007 banned the local Catholic Church from using the word "Allah" in its weekly paper Herald's Bahasa Malaysia section — meant for its Bahasa Malaysia-speaking church members.

The Catholic Church won at the High Court in 2009, but the Court of Appeal in 2013 and the Federal Court in a 4-3 decision in 2014 ruled in the Home Ministry and the government's favour. On January 21, 2015, the Federal Court's five-judge panel declined to have a fresh panel of judges review the 4-3 decision.