KUALA LUMPUR — Malaysia is bracing for a potentially bruising linguistic battle after its government vowed to challenge a court ruling allowing local Roman Catholics to refer to God as Allah.

A Muslim group held demonstration in Penang. (Photo: Malaysiakini)

The legal tussle is raising tensions between Malaysia’s ethnic-Malay Muslim majority, who represent about 60% of this resource-rich nation’s population, and its large ethnic-Chinese and Indian minorities. Muslim groups are preparing demonstrations against a High Court ruling on New Year’s Eve to overturn a three-year-old government ban on the Catholic Church using the Arabic word Allah as a translation for God in its Malay-language newspaper.

Government spokesman Tengku Sharifuddin Tengku Ahmad said Sunday the government will file an appeal against the ruling. Under Malaysian rules, an appeal must be filed within 30 days of a court judgment.

Among other things, the verdict potentially upholds the constitutional right of the church’s weekly Herald newspaper to refer to Jesus Christ as the son of Allah — something that could anger many Muslims here and hurt Prime Minister Najib Razak’s efforts to bring Malaysia’s different religious groups closer together.

In comments Sunday shown on Malaysian television, Mr. Najib appealed for calm on a “very sensitive issue” and said the government is fully aware of Muslims’ concerns. He said the government doesn’t encourage any demonstrations about the court ruling.

The Arab word Allah has been used by Malay-speaking Christians for centuries, much as it is used by Christians in Arabic-speaking countries or in Indonesia, where, like Malaysia, the concept of a single deity was introduced by Arabic-speaking traders. Rev. Lawrence Andrew, editor of the Herald, says there’s no other appropriate term for God in Malay.

Many powerful Islamic leaders here disagree, however, and fear some Muslims could be misled by Christians using the word Allah. They say the word should be reserved for Islam alone.

Now the controversy is quickly becoming a lightning rod for dissent against what some minority groups and moderate Muslims see as part of a broader Islamization of Malaysia that could deter investors.

Malaysia was, and many cases still is, a moderate, Muslim-majority nation. Its large Chinese and Indian minorities have encouraged trade links and investment, while multinationals helped create a large technology industry to complement Malaysia’s sizable natural-gas reserves and agricultural resources to propel it into the ranks of the world’s top 20 exporters.

Nonetheless, Muslim Shariah courts have spread quickly, encouraged, in part, by a government eager to co-opt the agenda of radical Muslims who hope to eventually turn Malaysia into Southeast Asia’s first Islamic state. Muslim-oriented lobby groups exert a strong influence over the government.

In the past six months, a Shariah court for the first time sentenced a woman who drank beer in a hotel to be caned, while a group of Muslim men near Kuala Lumpur threw a severed cow’s head onto the site of a proposed Hindu temple — a gross act of sacrilege.

“Despite official boasting about the country’s diverse population and commitment to pluralism, Islam and the government have essentially merged,” says Maznah Mohamad, a Malaysian political scientist at the National University of Singapore.

The New Year’s Eve ruling, written by Judge Lau Bee Lan, was one of the few times that a secular institution has intervened to block the advance of an increasingly political interpretation of Islam in Malaysia. She ruled that under Malaysian law, Christians have “a constitutional right to use [the word] Allah.”

The church’s Herald newspaper filed a lawsuit in 2007 challenging a government ban on it using the word Allah as a translation for God, complaining that the prohibition discriminated against Malay-speaking indigenous tribes who converted to Christianity decades ago.

The newspaper has a circulation of about 14,000 and is available only in Catholic churches, although some Muslims have complained that it is possible to look up Malay-language material using the term Allah on the Herald’s Web site.

Muslim activists mobilized almost as soon as the High Court’s verdict was delivered. The National Union of Malaysian Muslim Students contended that Christian missionaries using the word Allah could trick Muslims into leaving their faith, and the influential Malaysian Islamic Youth Movement said it plans a demonstration against the verdict in Kuala Lumpur on Jan. 8.

The Malay-language Utusan Malaysia newspaper reported that the influential mufti of northern Perak state, Harussani Zakaria, called the verdict “an insult to Muslims in this country.”

Some other Islamic figures, however, including Nik Aziz Nik Mat, spiritual leader of the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, offered their tentative support for the ruling.

Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said Saturday that authorities should set strict conditions for non-Muslims using the word Allah to avoid to provoking a Muslim backlash.

“What I am afraid of is that the term ‘Allah’ might be used in such a way that could inflame the anger of Muslims, if [non-Muslims] were to use it on banners or write something might not reflect Islam,” the state news agency Bernama reported him as saying. — WSJ