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Malaysia's gov't softens stance on seized Bibles

The Associated Press
Wednesday, March 23, 2011; 1:54 AM

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- Malaysia's government has reversed its decision to stamp a seized shipment of Malay-language Bibles with serial numbers and government seals, softening its stance after Christians slammed the move as desecrating their holy book.

A dispute over the distribution of Malay-language Bibles containing the word "Allah" as a translation for God has caused authorities to hold 35,000 Indonesian-made Bibles at two Malaysian ports since 2009. The government in this Muslim-majority country bans the use of "Allah" in non-Islamic texts, saying it could confuse Muslims or even be used to convert them.

Malaysian Christians say the Arabic word "Allah" is a common reference for God that predates Islam and in Malay language it has been used for centuries by both Muslims and Christians. They say the ban is unconstitutional and threatens the religious freedom of minorities.

Last week, the government agreed to release the Bibles on condition they are stamped with serial numbers and seals with warnings that the books are meant for Christians only. The Christian Federation of Malaysia, which represents most of the country's churches, said that would amount to desecrating the Bibles.

Late Tuesday, the Prime Minister's Department offered what it called a "fair and reasonable solution" to resolve the dispute.

The Bibles will be released with only the words "For Christianity" stamped on them, the department said in a statement. For books already stamped with serial numbers and seals, it said Christian donors have offered to replace them with new imported Bibles.

It reiterated that the serialization of the Bibles was standard practice and not meant to deface the books. The government will issue a directive to allow future imports of all Malay-language Bibles as long as the books contain the stamp "For Christianity," the department said.

The Christian federation said it would issue a statement after church leaders meet next week to discuss the government's offer.

While the government's proposed release of the Bibles aims to ease religious friction, it also attempts to assure Muslims that their interests will not be undermined in an ongoing court case on whether non-Muslims have the constitutional right to use "Allah."

The government is appealing a December 2009 court ruling that religious minorities - mostly Christians, Buddhists and Hindus - have the right to use "Allah." The verdict caused a brief surge in tensions last year, when 11 churches were attacked amid anger among some Muslims.

© 2011 The Associated Press