Father Andrew Lawrence pulls a fat red binder from a shelf inside his cramped office, where he edits a weekly Roman Catholic newspaper. Inside the binder are reams of documents from its decade-long dispute with Malaysia's government over the right to refer to God as "Allah," as Muslims do.
For a small paper like the Herald (circulation: 14,000), such a legal case can be ruinous. But the row has spiraled into a litmus test of tolerance and political maturity in this multifaith country of 28 million people.
The "Allah" row stirs strong emotions here in part because it is as much about race and language – and politics – as it is about religion. It also exposes the historical divisions between west and east Malaysia, where the majority of the country's roughly 1.4 million Roman Catholics live.
On Dec. 31, the Herald won a three-year battle in the High Court, which overturned a government ban on its use of "Allah." The verdict sparked small protests by Malay Muslims and a spate of attacks on Catholic churches, a Sikh temple, and three mosques, allegedly by Muslim agitators.
The government has obtained an injunction and appealed the verdict, arguing that the ban is essential for national security.
For centuries, Christian Malay speakers have prayed to Allah, the Arabic word for God. In neighboring Indonesia, a majority Muslim country with a near-identical language, the use of "Allah" by Christians is uncontroversial, as it is across much of the Middle East.
"It isn't complicated. We use it in our churches. It's part of our prayers," says Father Lawrence.
Opponents say that Christians can use other Malay words for their translations and should leave "Allah" for Muslims. "For me, 'Allah' shouldn't be used by other religions. If they use 'Allah,' our kids might get confused," says Nur Fadilla Zaaba, a resident.
The government has also used this argument, saying that it increases the risk of conversions of Muslims, which is illegal in Malaysia. The High Court rejected this and other similar arguments, pointing out that the Herald is sold only to Christians and "had never intended or caused any conflict, discord of misunderstanding" in its use of "Allah."
Opposition lawmakers claim that Malaysia's coalition-run government, dominated by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), uses the "Allah" issue to rally its base among Malay Muslims, who make up about 55 percent of the population.
Khairy Jamaluddin, a UMNO executive, argues that the party is trying to tamp down communal tensions. He says comparisons with Indonesia are misleading, as Islam has taken a more syncretic path there. "Malay Muslims have linguistic, religious, and ethnic ownership of the word because of the way that it came to Malaysia. For it to be used for a Christian God, it is an affront to them," he says.
While UMNO supports a ban, the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party has argued that there is no theological reason for it. In recent years, the party has moved toward the center. It even invited Lawrence to speak on the issue, he says.
In his office, Lawrence pulls out a rare 1619 Latin-Malay Bible that translates "God" as "Allah." "We have every right to use this word," he says.