Updated: 01/24/2014 23:33 | By Agence France-Presse

Malaysian leader says Christians must heed 'Allah' ban

Malaysian Christians must obey rules forbidding them from using the word "Allah", the country's leader was quoted saying Friday, breaking his silence in a festering row that has raised fears of religious conflict.

Malaysian leader says Christians must heed 'Allah' ban

Najib Razak, Prime Minister of Malaysia, addresses the 9th World Islamic Economic Forum in London on October 29, 2013 - by Andrew Cowie

The comments by Prime Minister Najib Razak met with immediate dismay from Christians, who have called the issue an example of growing Islamic intolerance that threatens to tarnish the Muslim-majority country's moderate image.

Muslim conservatives including the country's king have recently stepped up demands that Malay-speaking Christians not use the Arabic word to refer to the Christian God, saying it is reserved for Muslims.

"Allah" also is used by the Muslim ethnic Malay majority in Islamic worship.

The issue sparked a spate of attacks in 2010 on places of worship, mostly churches. 

Najib's government in 2011 announced a compromise that allowed limited use of the word by non-Muslims.

But on Friday he said the so-called "10-point agreement" was subservient to other laws and royal decrees.

"The 10-point agreement is subjected to federal and state laws," Najib was quoted saying by news portal Malaysiakini.

As tensions have resurfaced in recent weeks, Christians have called on Najib -- who portrays himself as a moderate -- to speak out in support of minorities' constitutionally guaranteed freedom to worship as they see fit.

"Of course we are extremely disappointed," Rev. Hermen Shastri, general secretary of the Council of Churches of Malaysia, said of Najib's comments.

Malay-speaking Christians say they have used "Allah" to refer to their God for hundreds of years.

Shastri told AFP churches would continue to do so in their services and in Bibles.

"We are going to take it up with the government again, that they are going back on their word."

Malay Muslims make up 60 percent of multi-ethnic Malaysia's 28 million people. About 2.6 million people are Christians.

Malaysia has an array of state-level laws and religious decrees against non-Muslims using the word, but they have historically not been strenuously enforced.

The current dispute was sparked in 2007 when Najib's Muslim-dominated government ordered a Catholic weekly newspaper to stop printing the word.

The Herald has challenged the order in a long-running court battle.

For decades, the 57-year-old authoritarian regime has touted Malaysia as a multi-ethnic melting pot, while leashing potentially destabilising radical Islamists.

Minorities, however, have long complained of discriminatory policies favouring Muslim Malays, while conservatism Islam has gained more say over the past decade as political controls have eased.

A court in October struck down the Herald's challenge. It has appealed.

As debate raged over the issue, Islamic officials on January 2 sparked concern by confiscating more than 300 Bibles because they contained "Allah".

Days later, police began investigating the newspaper's editor, a Catholic priest, for sedition after he said church sermons would continue using the word.

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