Prime Minister Najib Razak met with Pope Benedict XVI on 18 July, and it was announced that the Vatican and Malaysia agreed to establish diplomatic relations.
Malaysia, where Muslims make up 60 percent of the population, has long been cited as an example and model of a progressive multiracial and multiracial Muslim country. However, its peaceful coexistence has been strained by interreligious tensions and conflicts between the Malay majority and the ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities who are mostly Christians, Buddhists and Hindus. Decisions taken by the prime minister's Department Religious Affairs have exacerbated the situation. A leading example is the ruling that Christians stop using "Allah, the Malay term for God, despite the fact that this has been an accepted practice in Malaysia as it is in Indonesia and the Middle East. Malaysia's Home Ministry prohibited Catholics from using the word in their Malay-language publications since 2007. Customs officials seized 15,000 Bibles from Indonesia because they used the word "Allah" as a translation for God. However, Malaysia's High Court overturned a government ban, ruling that the word Allah is not exclusive to Muslims and that others, including Catholics, who had been prohibited by the Home Ministry from using the word in the Malay-language edition of the Catholic monthly the Herald, can now use the term. Incensed by the decision, militants attacked several churches and pledged to prevent Christians from using the word "Allah." In the aftermath of the attacks, the Malaysian High Court in response to a government appeals granted a stay order on Jan. 7; the government appealed to the higher Court of Appeal to overturn the ruling.
News reports of the eeting between the Prime Minister and the pope have emphasized the importance of the visit in terms of domestic Malaysian politics. The New York Times noted that analysts say the visit “is intended to signal a wish to mend ties with the country’s Christians” and BBC reported that it is “intended to reassure Christians in his country, who have long complained of discrimination.” Most reports also note some of the current tensions, giving as an example the attempt to prohibit Christians from using the word “Allah” when referring to God in the Malay language.
This example highlights one of the ironies of Prime Minister Najib’s meeting with the pope, because the ban on the use of the word “Allah” by Malaysian Christians is in fact an action initiated by the Najib government. As noted above, when the Kuala Lumpur High Court overturned the government ban, the Najib government appealed the decision. Currently the government is involved in a case dealing with the Home Ministry’s confiscation of Christian CDs using the word “Allah.” This government policy has been opposed by major opposition leaders including those leading Muslim organizations who are viewed as more explicitly Islamic in their policy orientation. Anwar Ibrahim, former Deputy Prime Minister and a leader of the Malaysian opposition, for example, put it simply: “Muslims have no monopoly over ‘Allah’.” (Wall Street Journal, 15 January 2010).
If Prime Minister Najib wants to assure Malaysian Christians of his desire for a united Malaysia, the solution would seem simple. Rather than going all the way to Rome to talk with the pope, his government could bring to an end its support for policies like banning the use of the word “Allah.” The recent rough suppression of opposition demonstrations, which included Christian demonstrators, does not help to create a sense of security for Malaysian religious minorities.