Malaysia Catholic paper may close in "Allah" row

KUALA LUMPUR Wed Dec 17, 2008 9:23am IST

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KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - A Catholic newspaper in Malaysia may have just two more weeks in print unless the government backs off a threat to close it down over its use of the word "Allah" to describe the Christian god.

The "Herald -- the Catholic Weekly" has a circulation of 14,000 and has been published since 1980 but in July was told its license was being reviewed as its use of the word Allah could inflame the Asian country's majority Muslim population.

The newspaper says that it is a victim of politics and that the government that has ruled Malaysia for 51 years since independence from Britain is stoking religious conflict in a bid to retain power after big losses in elections earlier this year.

Other religious groups have complained of persecution in this country of 27 million in which almost 60 percent of the population is Malay and Muslim but which has substantial ethnic Indian and Chinese minorities who practise a variety of faiths.

"The Catholic Herald's 'Allah' is seen as a threat to national security," Father Lawrence Andrew, editor of the paper, told Reuters at his office behind an early 20th century church in the heart of the Malaysian capital.

The Herald publishes in English, Mandarin and Tamil languages but it was the use of the Malay language that especially irked the government. It publishes in Malay to cater for tribal communities in the states of Sabah and Sarawak on Borneo Island, many of whom converted to Christianity long ago.

"We are now a scapegoat, a means for the Malay-Muslims to rally together," Andrew said of the paper which needs the license to publish in 2009.

In recent weeks, ethnic Chinese Malaysians have expressed alarm after a leading politician from the main government party called for Chinese language schools to be closed.

An ethnic Indian group that organised a huge anti-government protest in 2007, triggered in part by the demolition of what authorities said were illegal temples, was banned in October as a threat to national security.

A MUSLIM NATION

Under the Malaysian constitution, Malays must be Muslim and enjoy special privileges in job opportunities, cheap loans and access to an affirmative action programme in universities.

Those privileges have come under attack from the opposition led by Anwar Ibrahim, a one-time Muslim activist who was deputy prime minister until he was sacked and imprisoned on what he says were trumped up sodomy and corruption charges in the late 1990s.

The issue of the use of Islam for political ends has started to cause alarm among some Muslim scholars and even the Sultans of Malaysia's states have warned the government that they are the guardians of Islam under the constitution.

When the government-backed National Fatwa Council last month declared that Muslims should not practise the Indian physical regime of yoga it was rebuked by the Sultan of Selangor, one of Malaysia's eight sultans who take it in turn to be king.

With internal elections due in March in the main government party, the United Malays National Organisation, the Herald looks unlikely to get a break.

"The pressure is coming from within (the government) and also the Malay-Muslim NGOs, who will be opposed on no uncertain terms to any non-Muslim using the word," said Osman Bakar, deputy chief executive of the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies Malaysia.

The government insists it is still reviewing the Herald's license and that it is following due process.

"Until Dec. 31, we are not going to announce anything. There is plenty of time till then. Let them wait," Deputy Home Minister Wan Ahmad Farid Wan Salleh told Reuters.

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