Malaysian Muslims pray in central Kuala Lumpur. (AFP photo)

KUALA LUMPUR — Malaysia’s image as a moderate Muslim nation has suffered a blow with a spate of church firebombings that has widened ethnic divisions and posed a serious challenge for Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Nine churches have been attacked since last Friday, pelted with Molotov cocktails or vandalised amid anger over a court ruling that overturned a government ban on non-Muslims using “Allah” as a translation for “God”.

The government has insisted that the use of the word by Christians, who make up nine percent of the Muslim-majority nation’s population, could cause confusion and encourage religious conversion, which is illegal for Muslims in Malaysia.

“It is a low point for Malaysia’s image as a moderate Muslim country,” said Azmi Sharom from the Universiti Malaya, of the latest in a string of religious disputes that have raised fears the country is being “Islamised”.

A Malaysian Christian is challenging the seizure of religious CDs with the word “Allah” printed on them, in the latest twist of an escalating dispute over use of the word, her lawyer said Tuesday. Related article: Malaysian Christian challenges seizure of ‘Allah’ CD: lawyer

Jill Ireland, of the indigenous Melanau tribe from Sarawak state on Borneo island, is seeking a court order to return eight discs seized when she returned from Indonesia in May 2008, her lawyer Annou Xavier said.

They include the sentencing of a Muslim model to six strokes of the cane for drinking beer, and “body-snatching” cases where Islamic authorities have battled with relatives over the remains of people whose religion is disputed.

The tussles have caused unease among Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities, who fear their rights are being eroded as political parties battle for the support of the 62 percent of the population that is Malay.

The “Allah” row “is an ethnic and political thing more than a religious one,” said Azmi, arguing that the ban on the use of the word is aimed at shoring up government support among Malays, who represent its base.

“The term ‘Allah’ has been used commonly elsewhere. The government is just pandering to some people who are calling for the ban, but most people actually feel quite indifferent about this issue,” he said.

The ruling party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), has been accused of stoking Malay nationalism in order to protect its support base after 2008 elections where it lost ground to the opposition.

Pollster Ibrahim Suffian said the church attacks are a “double-edged sword” for Najib, who came to power last year pledging to heal divisions among the ethnic groups.

“If the government doesn’t appeal (against the court ruling), it will be seen as offending the conservative Muslims in the country, but at the same time he has pledged to reach out to all minorities,” he said.

“It just goes to show the limited amount of room he has between balancing his political interest and a wider Malaysian interest,” said Ibrahim, head of the independent polling firm Merdeka Centre.

Najib has visited the scene of the most serious of the attacks, a church that was partly gutted last Friday, as have several leaders of the opposition Islamic party, which is challenging UMNO for Malay support.

The fire-bombings come just as Malaysia, Southeast Asia’s third-largest economy, is trying to woo foreign investors. They also threaten to harm its tourism industry, one of the key foreign exchange earners.

“This is the communication era, so information travels fast… tourists will choose not to visit a country faced with conflicts, especially religious conflicts,” Tourism Minister Ng Yen Yen has warned.

Religion and language are sensitive issues in multiracial Malaysia, which experienced deadly race riots in 1969.

The latest controversy may be prolonged as there have been no steps towards a compromise over the “Allah” case. The High Court last week suspended the lifting of the ban but has yet to set a date to hear the government’s appeal.

Prominent Islamic cleric Harussani Zakaria said he recognised that the disputed word is widely used by Christians in the Middle East, as well as in neighbouring Indonesia, but said it had to be off-limits in Malaysia.

He disputed Christians’ claims that they had used the word for centuries without incident, and accused them of having “hidden motives”.

“We are still living in a moderate Muslim country but we can’t be tolerant on issues of faith. Please just respect our faith, that’s all,” he told AFP.

Father Lawrence Andrew, the editor of the Catholic “Herald” newspaper which mounted the legal challenge to the government ban, was also resolute.

“How do we withdraw the case when the case has been decided and it was decided in our favour?” he asked. “We have been using the word for so long, at least 400 years here.” — AFP