Catholic editor Father Lawrence Andrew holds a Bible published in Arabic as he leaves the courtroom Thursday. (Photo: Reuters)

KUALA LUMPUR — If a Malaysian High Court ruling stands, Roman Catholics here can resume using the word “Allah” as their translation for God in their local language.

The court on New Year’s Eve overturned a three-year-old government ban that prevented the Catholic Church from using the term Allah in its literature. The Arabic word has been used by various faiths in this Muslim-majority nation for centuries, and the church argues that it is the only suitable way to denote God in the Malay language.

Other options, such as “Tuhan,” or Lord, aren’t as appropriate, says Rev. Lawrence Andrew, the editor of the church’s Herald newspaper. He called Judge Lau Bee Lan’s decision a landmark ruling that upholds constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and religion.

But some people fear the ruling is only the first round in what they see as a longer campaign by a broad spectrum of Muslims to make this religiously diverse, resource-rich nation more Islamic. Prosecutors could file an appeal as soon as Monday, and Islamic activists already are demanding the ruling be overturned. A government spokesman couldn’t be reached to comment.

The linguistic dispute over the word Allah comes amid a flurry of other controversies that have convinced many Malaysians that their country is adopting an increasingly politicized interpretation of Islam. Some analysts fear it could eventually turn off international investors.

In recent months, a Muslim Shariah court sentenced a woman who ordered a beer in a hotel bar to be caned, while a group of Muslim men desecrated the proposed location of a Hindu temple near Kuala Lumpur by tossing a severed cow’s head onto the site as police stood aside.

The increasingly religious bent of Malaysia’s authorities contrasts sharply with the country’s reputation as a holdout for moderation in the Islamic world. Malaysia’s diverse makeup — around 60% of Malaysia’s 27 million people are ethnic-Malay Muslims, while the rest are mostly ethnic-Chinese and Indians — has encouraged trade and investment. For a while, the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur were the tallest buildings in the world, and the country hosts a large technology industry in addition to sprawling palm oil plantations and natural-gas reserves.

The character of the country has changed, however. As Islam emerged as a political force across the Muslim world, Malaysian leaders encouraged the spread of Shariah courts and a Muslim-dominated bureaucracy.

The ruling, however, adds to signs that some Malaysians may be ready to push back against the Islamist tide, or at least act to prevent it from becoming more powerful, observers say.

In an interview in November, Prime Minister Najib Razak said the government would resist efforts by Islamist hard-liners to turn Malaysia into a more-radical Islamic nation. “We are going to maintain what we are today — a moderate Muslim state,” Mr. Najib said.

The Herald newspaper filed a lawsuit against the government’s ban on it using the word Allah in 2007. Malaysian authorities were concerned that the word would confuse or mislead Muslims, and that the term should be reserved exclusively for Islam.

The ban hindered the Malay-language edition of the Herald, which is read mostly by indigenous tribes who converted to Catholicism and other forms of Christianity. It added to the grievances of Malaysia’s religious minorities, who complain they are discriminated against by the Muslim-dominated government — a claim the government denies.

The ban on Christians using the word Allah was imposed before Mr. Najib became prime minister, and some observers suggest he might not want to pursue the case in order to help improve religious relations. The Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, a key member of an opposition coalition, already has urged its followers to respect the court’s verdict.

Muslim activists have grown more powerful, however, and the government may be unable to resist pressure to appeal the Allah ruling, observers say. — WSJ