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January 10, 2010

Attacks on churches continue in Malaysia

Firebombs were thrown at two more churches in Malaysia early Sunday and another church was splashed with black paint, the latest in a series of assaults on Christian houses of worship following a court decision allowing non-Muslims to use "Allah" to refer to God, the Associated Press reports.

Hundreds of worshippers whose parish church was partly gutted in a firebomb attack last week gathered at a makeshift prayer hall for their Sunday service and called for national unity and an end to violence, AP reporter Eileen Ng writes.

On Sunday, a Molotov cocktail was hurled at the All Saints Church in Taiping town in central Perak state early in the morning before it had opened, said state police chief Zulkifli Abdullah. He told the AP that the building was not damaged but police found burn marks on the wall.

A broken kerosene bottle with an unlit wick was found early Sunday inside the compound of the St. Louis Catholic church, also in Taiping, said the Rev. David Lourdes. He said it appeared to be a failed attack.

In southern Malacca state, the outer wall of the Malacca Baptist Church was splashed with black paint, police said.

Four other churches were hit by gasoline bombs on Friday and Saturday. All except the Metro Tabernacle, whose parishioners moved their services, suffered little damage, and no one was hurt. The other three held normal services Sunday.

The unprecedented attacks have set off a wave of disquiet among Malaysia's minority Christians and strained their ties with the majority Malay Muslims.

The dispute is over a Dec. 31 High Court decision that overturned a government order banning non-Muslims from using the word "Allah" in their prayers and literature. The court was ruling on a petition by Malaysia's Roman Catholic Church, whose main publication, the Herald, uses the word "Allah" in its Malay-language edition. The government has appealed the verdict.

About 9 percent of Malaysia's 28 million people are Christian, most of whom are ethnic Chinese or Indian. Muslims make 60 percent of the population and most of them are ethnic Malays.

On Sunday, men, women and children from the Metro Tabernacle parish assembled in the cavernous, 1,800-seat meeting hall of the Malaysian Chinese Association party for the service. They lifted their hands and sang "We put all our faith in you," and "You are the God of love and peace" during the Sunday service.

"My wife was worried, but we want to be here to support the church," said Michael Chew, 40, who came to the service with two children, aged 1 and 6.

The service was in English, as are most Christian services in mainland Malaysia, though some are in Chinese and Tamil languages. Such services do not use the word "Allah." Only the Malay-language prayers for indigenous tribespeople in the remote states of Sabah and Sarawak use "Allah," as they have for decades.

Rev. Hermen Shastri, general secretary of the Council of Churches of Malaysia, said Christians won't be intimidated by the attacks, describing them as the work of extremist minority among Muslims.

"What is clear is that it is done by extremist groups. It does not reflect the majority Muslims in the country. We all have to stand together to stamp out terror perpetuated by these extremist groups," he said.

The government contends that making Allah synonymous with God may confuse Muslims and ultimately mislead them into converting to Christianity.

Still, government leaders and many Muslims have condemned the firebombings, saying it is un-Islamic to attack places of worship.

Prime Minister Najib Razak visited the Metro Tabernacle church late Saturday and announced a grant of 500,000 ringgit ($147,000) for rebuilding it at a new location, a major concession in a country where permission is rarely given for building new churches or temples.

The Allah ban is unusual in the Muslim world. The Arabic word is commonly used by Christians to describe God in such countries as Egypt, Syria and Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim nation.

Posted by Matthew Hay Brown at 9:04 AM | | Comments (0)
        

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About Matthew Hay Brown
Matthew Hay Brown writes and blogs about faith and values in public and private life for The Baltimore Sun. A former Washington correspondent for the newspaper, he has long written about the intersection of religion and politics. He has reported from Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Middle East, traveling most recently to Syria and Jordan to write about the Iraqi refugee crisis.
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