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KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Rising Christian anger in mainly Muslim Malaysia over the government's handling of a case involving seized Bibles could complicate Prime Minister Najib Razak's bid to win back the support of minorities ahead of an early general election.
The row over 35,100 imported Malay language Bibles and Christian texts impounded by Customs authorities comes amid a legal battle on the right of non-Muslims to use the Arabic word "Allah" and could raise ethno-religious tensions in the country.
The bibles were seized in 2009 but the case was only made public in January.
"There has been a systematic and progressive pushing back of the public space to practise, to profess and to express our faith," Bishop Ng Moon Hing, chairman of the Christian Federation of Malaysia (CFM), said in a statement on Wednesday.
Christians make up 9.1 percent of the country's 28 million population. Chinese and Indian non-Muslim ethnic minorities have abandoned the government, leading to record losses for Najib's ruling coalition in the last national polls in 2008 and growing complaints of marginalisation.
Economic growth, which accelerated to a 10-year high of 7.2 percent in 2010, and strong commodity prices are fuelling speculation that Najib may call a general election late this year, though one does not have to be held until 2013.
But the row signals continuing minority discontent that could stymie Najib's bid to reverse the 2008 poll losses and to accelerate the implementation of tax and subsidy reforms, which have slowed due to the government's wariness about upsetting voters.
"This issue will make it easier for the opposition to win additional seats," said James Chin, a political analyst at the Monash University campus in Kuala Lumpur.
The "Allah" affair has been running since December 2009, when a Catholic publication was given the right to use the word, which led to attacks on houses of worship.
The use of the Arabic word is common among Malay-speaking Christians in the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak.
Initially, the authorities said the Bibles would only be released if each copy was stamped with the phrase "For Christians Only" and assigned serial numbers. Under a revised offer, the phrase is modified to "For Christianity" and there is no serial number but this will have to apply to all future shipments.
The CFM, which represents 90 percent of the churches in the country, said importers would be allowed to decide whether to take up the revised offer but it called on the government to remove all obstacles against the importation and use of Malay language Bibles.
While Najib has pledged to win back the support of minorities, some in his United Malay National Organisation (UMNO), the linchpin of the ruling coalition, have cast this approach aside in a bid to woo conservative Malay Muslims.
The extent of minority discontent will be tested in the ruling coalition's bastion state of Sarawak on April 16.
Minority unhappiness over the Bible seizure row could help the opposition increase its tally of seats in the 71-seat Sarawak legislature to 18 from eight, said Ong Kian Ming, a political science professor at UCSI University.
Such an outcome would raise doubts about the ability of the ruling coalition to win back non-Malay majority parliamentary seats in the next general election.
"Christians are hurt because there have been assurances given so often by the authorities, then we find somebody seizing Bibles and publications" said Hermen Shastri, secretary general of the Council of Churches Malaysia.
Reporting by Razak Ahmad; Editing by Alan Raybould