KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia on Monday defended its refusal to allow non-Muslims to use the word “Allah,” as a dispute over the issue saw a ninth church attacked in a spate of fire-bombings and vandalism.

The Sidang Injil Borneo Church in the central state of Negri Sembilan was the latest to be targeted amid anger over a court ruling that overturned a government ban on minorities using “Allah” as a translation for “God”.

The church attacks which erupted last Friday have sent tensions soaring in the multicultural nation, where the Muslim Malay majority lives alongside ethnic Chinese and Indian communities.

Home Ministry secretary-general Mahmood Adam, who briefed foreign diplomats on the crisis on Monday, said they had asked why the term was off-limits when it is widely used by Christians in Indonesia and the Middle East.

“They don’t understand the situation here, they just want to know why it can be allowed in other countries and not here,” he told reporters.

“Be fair, you have to compare apples to apples, oranges to oranges. Our landscape is different from other countries. Malays here are different from (Muslims in) other countries.

The row flared after the High Court on December 31 ruled in favour of the Catholic newspaper The Herald, which argued for the right to use “Allah” in its Malay-language section.

Malaysia’s Christians say they have used the word without incident for centuries, but the ruling party — which is vying for popularity among Muslims with the opposition Islamic party — insists it must be used only by Muslims.

It says that the use of “Allah” by Christians could cause confusion among Muslims and encourage religious conversion, which is illegal in Malaysia.

The ruling in the Catholic newspaper’s favour was suspended last week pending an appeal, after the government argued the decision could cause racial conflict.

Since Friday, churches have been pelted with Molotov cocktails, splashed with black paint and had windows smashed with stones, triggering tighter security at places of worship nationwide.

The latest attack targeted the Sidang Injil Borneo Church which conducts services in the national language, Malay. Its door was left blackened by fire which filled the building with smoke.

“We have been using the word ‘Allah’ during the service as most our church members speak the Malay language,” senior pastor Eddy Marson Yasir said of the congregation which mostly hails from Sabah and Sarawak states on Borneo island.

Prime Minister Najib Razak has called for calm and said the government will not tolerate any threat to racial harmony.

Mahmood from the home ministry reiterated the government’s condemnation of the violence and said Malaysia would do “all in our power” to protect religious freedom.

The row is one of a string of religious disputes in recent years that have strained relations between Muslim Malays and ethnic Chinese and Indians who fear the country is being “Islamised”.

About nine percent of Malaysia’s 28 million people are Christians, including some 850,000 Catholics. More than half of Malaysia’s Catholics are from indigenous groups, mostly from Borneo.

Azmi Sharom from the Universiti Malaya criticised the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) for stoking Malay nationalism in order to protect its voter base, after 2008 elections where it lost unprecedented ground to the opposition.

“The soil has already been prepared by UMNO… the tone has been very much about the Malays being under threat’ Sharom said, adding that the “Allah” ban had no basis in theology.

“Instead of making a stand on principle, (UMNO) are trying to make sure they don’t lose appeal to their voters even if it means they are appealing to a bunch of racists,” he said. — AFP