Vandals set fire to 2 Muslim prayer rooms in Malaysia amid religious strains over ‘Allah’ ban

By Julia Zappei, AP
Thursday, January 21, 2010

Arson attempts on 2 Malaysian Muslim prayer rooms

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Vandals tried to burn down two Muslim prayer rooms in Malaysia on Thursday, following a string of arson attacks on churches amid a dispute over the use of the word “Allah” by Christians.

Religious tensions have risen after a court ruled Dec. 31 that non-Muslims can use “Allah” as a translation for “God” in the Malay language. Many among the country’s ethnic Malay Muslim majority believe the word should be exclusive to Muslims, and its use by others could confuse some Muslims and even entice them to convert.

Since Jan. 8, there have been assaults on 11 churches, a Sikh temple and a mosque — mostly by unknown assailants using firebombs. Police this week arrested eight suspects believed to have orchestrated the most serious attack, which partially gutted a church in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s largest city.

On Thursday, vandals set fire to a curtain in a small building designated for Muslim prayers in southern Johor state, said a state police official who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing protocol.

People who noticed the blaze doused it before it could cause extensive damage. Police found traces of diesel and a broken window pane in the building, the official said.

Another prayer room in the same district was also set on fire, he said, without elaborating.

Opposition lawmaker Gwee Tong Hiang, who visited both sites, said the second building was more severely damaged. Its carpet, doors and walls had burn marks, while its windows were broken, he said.

Muslims and non-Muslims “have been staying together (in this area) for the past years peacefully. I hope this won’t hurt their relationships,” he said.

Officials declined to say if the attacks were believed to be in retaliation for the ones on churches.

Government authorities have condemned the church attacks amid efforts to preserve decades of amicable relations between Malays, who make up nearly two-thirds of Malaysia’s 28 million people, and religious minorities, mainly ethnic Chinese and Indians who practice Buddhism, Christianity or Hinduism.

The dispute centers on a court ruling that favored the Herald, the newspaper of the Roman Catholic Church in Malaysia, which argued it has the right to use the word “Allah” in its Malay-language edition because the word predates Islam and is commonly used by Christians in other predominantly Muslim countries, such as Egypt, Indonesia and Syria.

The government has appealed the verdict, which overturned a years-old government ban on the use of the word in non-Muslim publications. Minority communities say this is an example of institutionalized religious discrimination faced by non-Muslims, who have also complained about problems obtaining approval to build churches and temples.

will not be displayed