Kuala Lumpur Churches Firebombed over Allah Issue

Youths on motorcycles firebombed an Assemblies of God church in Kuala Lumpur last night, gutting its administrative offices, and threw a Molotov cocktail at a Catholic church in the Petaling Jaya suburb as tensions continue to rise over a decision by a High Court justice that the Catholic Church could use the word "Allah" to represent the Christian god in the Malay version of its news publication, The Herald.

Police later reported that two more churches were attacked as well although at one the Molotov cocktail failed to ignite. Police stationed police cars at churches throughout the city as demonstrations were scheduled at mosques across the country during the Friday Muslim prayer hours. Officials from the United Malays National Organization and Parti Islam se-Malasia, the two ethnic Malay political parties, condemned the attacks and called for calm. By Friday evening, at least 150,000 protesters have signed onto a Facebook protest, with the numbers continuing to grow.

The ruling by Justice Lau Bee Lan was stayed on Jan 6. at the request of Abdlu Gani Patail, Malaysia's attorney general. Lau's decision has generated massive protest across Malaysia, much of it fomented by UMNO, according to critics. Catholic Church officials agreed to the stay out of national security concerns.

There are increasing concerns that the matter could get out of hand. Musa Hassan, the inspector general of police, warned groups planning to stage rallies that they had better cancel or they could face action. Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak has also called for calm although he also said protesters have the right to rally within the confines of mosques.

"We cannot stop them, as long as it is confined within the mosque area," he told a press conference.

The Muslim youth movement Abim and the National Association of Muslim Students were expected to hold nationwide rallies today against Justice Lau's decision.

Kuala Lumpur is also bracing for rising Malay protest in advance of the trial of 12 so-called "cow's head" protesters who are expected to go to court on April 12 for sedition for an incident that happened last August when they were arrested for carrying a cow's head to the Selangor state government headquarters in protest of a plan to relocate a 150-year-old Hindu temple in what was regarded as an ethnic Malay area. Cows are sacred to ethnic Hindus.

The 12 have hardly backed away from their pugnacious stance. On Dec. 8, shouting "Jangan Memperbodohkan Orang Melayu (Do not hoodwink the Malays'), the 12, accompanied by about 20 more, marched down a busy street carrying a banner depicting leaders of the Democratic Action Party with cows bodies and horns. They threw the banner to the ground and started stepping on it.

Between the two issues, and other accumulated strains in the society, Najib's "1Malaysia" campaign to try to ameliorate the racial tensions that have been rising since March 2008 elections that gave the opposition solid gains faces a rocky time. Najib has assiduously attempted to woo back disaffected minority Chinese and Indian voters who deserted the scandal-ridden Malaysian Chinese Association and Malaysian Indian Congress but has faced continued tension.

Ethnic Malays charge that the minorities, who play a major role in the opposition led by Anwar Ibrahim, are demanding too much in a country where ketuanan Melayu, or Malay superiority, has been a fixture for three decades. The minorities believe that UMNO is behind the rising racial tension in an effort to solidify the Malay vote. Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, an elder UMNO statesman, told local media that the party was "bent on fanning communal sentiment and digging itself into an intolerant hardline position with no parallel in the Muslim world."

"I think the danger level is going to rise," said a well-placed ethnic Malay source in Kuala Lumpur. "Many protests and demonstrations are in motion across the country. I think this whole saga plus the protests planned basically means that the Muslim Malay community is fighting back. It's not just Allah, but the culmination of lots of issues."

The Herald, which is printed in four languages, was refused a printing permit two years ago for using the word "Allah" as a translation for "God" in its Malay-language section. It had previously done so in copies circulated in Sabah and Sarawak, which have many more Christian converts than does Peninsular Malaysia, which is predominantly Malay and Muslim.

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim condemned the stay and charged UMNO with "politicizing the issue and pandering to its conservative base...to deflect attention from its own political vulnerabilities." In a press release, the opposition coalition said it "has gained popularity by touting a vision of a secular country in which all religions have equal rights. Even the opposition's Islamic partner, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party—which hasn't always supported liberal ideas—issued a statement Monday saying that the Herald's use of 'Allah' is its constitutional right.

Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad also joined the fray, writing a Malay-language statement in his blog "Chedet" saying that the issue over the use of the word Allah "cannot be referred to or resolved by the courts. Laws cannot take into account sensitivities and issues that could trigger tension and chaos amongst religious peoples and of different faiths.

"I hope the government is very careful over this issue so that this multi faith country does not fall into disarray," he wrote.