KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysia’s king gave his backing on Sunday to a court ruling barring non-Muslims from using the word Allah to refer to God, weighing in for the first time on an issue that has fanned religious tensions in the multi-cultural country.
Sultan Abdul Halim Mu’adzam, whose role as head of state is largely ceremonial, alluded to the issue which has raised questions over minority rights during his birthday speech to the Southeast Asian nation.
A court in October ruled that the word was exclusive to majority Malay Muslims, overturning an earlier decision allowing a Catholic newspaper to use Allah in its Malay-language edition.
The court ruling has since prompted Muslim leaders to call for demonstrations against Christians who do not comply. Christians make up about 9 percent of Malaysia’s 29 million people.
“In the context of a pluralistic society, religious sensitivities especially related to Islam as the religion of the federation should be respected,” Sultan Abdul Halim said in the speech released by state news agency Bernama.
“Confusion and controversy can be averted if there is adherence to the provisions of the law and judicial decisions.”
Police are currently investigating a Catholic priest under sedition laws for insisting the word can be used by non-Muslims in Malay, the country’s national language.
Sultan Abdul Halim is one of the nine sultans who take turns every five years to serve as head of state.
While the king has limited powers, he is regarded as a defender of the Islamic faith and is deeply respected by the Malay Muslims who make up 60 percent of the population.
The sultans have become increasingly vocal about their role in defending Islam in a country that also has sizable Christian, Buddhist and Hindu minorities.
They have the authority to appoint clerics and instruct religious police to safeguard the faith in Malaysian states that they head.
Earlier this month religious authorities in Selangor state seized over 300 Malay Bibles from a Christian group, saying they acted on a decree by the sultan of that state forbidding non-Muslims from using Allah.
Prime Minister Najib Razak had pledged in 2011 that Malay-speaking Christians across the country could use the word Allah.
That assurance came a year after arsonists firebombed several churches in 2010 over an initial court ruling that allowed the Catholic newspaper to use the Arabic word.
Government ministers have said the word could still be used in eastern Sabah and Sarawak states, where most of Malaysia’s Christians live, but the October ruling and Sultan Abdul Halim’s endorsement has left doubt over whether it can be used in the peninsula.
Reporting by Niluksi Koswanage; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore