Today an appeals court in Malaysia delivered a major setback to the religious freedom of Christians. A Catholic newspaper, the Herald, may not use the word "Allah" to refer to God.

Christians in the Western hemisphere might be confused by the headlines. The ruling is not about Christians' referring to the God worshipped by Muslims, but rather about what Christians may call the God they themselves worship. Catholics in Malaysia, as in many other countries, call God by the word "Allah."

Arabic-speaking Christians do so, as do Arabic-speaking Jews. The word sounds almost exactly like the way Aramaic-speaking Jesus would have pronounced it.

From Reuters:

The unanimous decision by three Muslim judges in Malaysia's appeals court overturned a 2009 ruling by a lower court that allowed the Malay-language version of the newspaper, The Herald, to use the word Allah -- as many Christians in Malaysia say has been the case for centuries.

"The usage of the word Allah is not an integral part of the faith in Christianity," chief judge Mohamed Apandi Ali said in the ruling. "The usage of the word will cause confusion in the community." ...

Lawyers for the Catholic paper had argued that the word Allah predated Islam and had been used extensively by Malay-speaking Christians in Malaysia's part of Borneo island for centuries.

They say they will appeal against Monday's decision to Malaysia's highest court.

"The nation must protect and support the rights of the minority," said Father Lawrence Andrew, the founding editor of the Herald. "God is an integral part of every religion."

Christians in Indonesia and much of the Arab world continue to use the word without opposition from Islamic authorities. Churches in the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak have said they will continue to use the word regardless of the ruling.

The defendants fear that the decision will also apply to other Christian publications in Bahasa Malaysia. This could end up being the most important religious liberty story of the year, with wide-ranging implications for religious pluralism in southeast Asia. At issue are three of the minority rights at the very core of modern rights-based polities: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of the press.

We ought to keep watch on the situation in Malaysia and other regions where Christians' religious liberty is seriously threatened. Indeed, one salutary effect of the United States' public discourse about religious freedom in the past few years has been to attune American Christians to actual religious persecution around the world. John Allen's new book, The Global War on Christians, narrates a contrast between our metaphorical "wars" on religion and the real "front lines" around the world.

Here in the United States, we are tinkering with a well-functioning system of religious liberty. It works overall, and when new situations arise, such as the "HHS mandate" or proposed laws criminalizing charity toward immigrants, we have processes in place to negotiate the terms of ordered liberty in a pluralistic democracy.

Christians in many other countries, however, face the foundational questions of religious liberty. Can Christians in upper Egypt continue to celebrate the sacraments in their own churches, on private property? Can Christians in rural Syria even remain in their homes and towns at all, or must they flee? Can Christians in Malaysia address God with the word they have always used?

These are the most basic of religious rights, and they are currently in doubt in very populous countries around the world.

To be sure, Americans should have our arguments and fine-tune our instrument of religious liberty. But its fundamentals remain strong. And let's remember why it occasionally needs tuning -- because it gets so much beneficial use, by so many different people.


Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University and on the staff of its Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. He is the author of The World's Oldest Church and The Son of God in the Roman World, and on Twitter @MichaelPeppard. He is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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