KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysian churches yesterday said they have refused to collect about 35,000 Malay-language Bibles being held by the authorities at two Malaysians ports, after the government insisted on attaching conditions for their release. The government, which had held up the Christian holy books imported from Indonesia, had said all of them would need to have serial numbers and the words “For Christians Only” before they could be allowed into the country. Both the Bible Society of Malaysia and the Sarawak branch of global Christian group The Gideons have not collected the books, sources say. They had received letters from the Home Ministry on Tuesday, permitting their collection. The Bible Society’s 5,100 imported Bibles have been in Port Klang since March 2009, while The Gideon’s’ 30,000 have been in Kuching port since January. The churches believe they were not released because they used the word “Allah” to refer to God. (Carolyn Hong, “Churches refuse to collect Bibles,” The Straits Times, Thursday, March 17, 2011, page A24.)
There must have been a sigh of relief in the Malaysian Christian community when we were told that the government had approved the release of the consignment of Malay language bibles held in Kuching. (Not sure about the status of the shipments held in Port Klang.) Joy was mingled with concern as there were two conditions set for the release of the bibles. The two conditions were that each copy of the bibles should carry a serial number and should be stamped “For Christians Only.” Would Christians be portrayed as being unreasonable and not willing to compromise if we reject these conditions? After all they were getting their bibles. What could easily be forgotten was that the confiscation was unconstitutional to begin with. The other concern is that the whole matter will be portrayed as a Christian vs. Muslim problem. There is nothing that riles up emotions faster than a holy war. In truth the matter is nothing of that sort. It is a legal matter between what is constitutional and what is not. Note that PAS (Party Islam) has no problems with Christians using the word Allah. Indeed I know of no other Muslim nation that forbids Christians within their midst to use the term “Allah”, including the most populous Muslim nation, our neighbor Indonesia.
It must be borne in mind then that the matter is first and foremost a matter of law. Freedom of religion is enshrined in the Malaysian Constitution. Article 11 provides that every person has the right to profess and to practice his or her religion and (subject to applicable laws restricting the propagation of other religions to Muslims) to propagate it. The Constitution also provides that Islam is the religion of the country but other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony (Article 3). Once in a while I encounter well-meaning Christians who argue that “Allah” is a bad translation for the word God and that therefore we should have no qualms in replacing that term with “Tuhan” or some other term. I respond by saying that Christian scholars have every right to discuss such translation issues, but the present Allah issue in Malaysia is not a translation issue. It is a matter of law and legal rights. Can the government of the day, in violation of the constitution, dictate to any religious group what they can or cannot call God? Note that our Sikh friends also translate the word “God” as “Allah”.
I am glad that the church in Malaysia is stirring and speaking up against what is clearly unfair and unconstitutional. Followers of Jesus Christ will never respond with violence. But we can speak up for what is true and right. Indeed, I can’t remember when the Malaysian church was so vocal in speaking up for justice. (Reminds me of the Ents in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings finally stirring to oppose evil.) My question however is, will we speak up only for ourselves, or for all those in the land who have been deprived of justice? The Bible calls us to:
Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,
for the rights of all who are destitute.
Speak up and judge fairly;
defend the rights of the poor and needy.
(Proverbs 31:8-9 NIV)
Has the church been stirred to merely speak up for her own concerns or are we committed to being agents of the Kingdom of God, speaking up on behalf of all deprived of their basic rights? Is the church as excited about speaking up for tribal groups who have been cheated and bullied? How about the many refugees in the land? Do we even see them? How about the Shiites? If the government were to allow us our constitutional right to use the word Allah, would the church return to business as usual? In other words, are we church focused or Kingdom focused? Perhaps, for too long, the church has not been speaking up in the public sphere, either for herself or for others. I am glad that the Malaysian church has discovered her voice. The test before us now is — will we speak up just to protect our own agenda or will be mouthpieces for God’s agenda?