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WORLDWATCHMONITOR, Jun 24 – After a seven-year battle through the courts, yesterday (23 June) Jill Ireland, a Malaysian Christian finally won the right to regain her CDs of worship songs which include the word ‘Allah’.
The Malaysian Court of Appeal ordered its Government to return the spiritual material to Jill Ireland. Her appeal had been heard three months ago on April 23rd, but the three-man bench had reserved judgment until now, and they specified that the CDs be handed over “within one month”.
Ireland, a 34 year old clerk, had brought the CDs from Indonesia in 2008. But on her arrival at a Kuala Lumpur airport, Customs officials seized the eight CDs because they contained the word ‘Allah’ in their titles. (Ireland is Melanau, a group who mainly live in the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak, far from KL, the capital in peninsular Malaysia.)
Malaysia has been in the limelight because of a controversial ban on the use of the word to describe the ‘Christian’ God, even though in the Malay language it’s been used for over 100 years.
Muslim leaders across the world, and UN human rights bodies, have decried its government’s decision to ‘copyright’ the word for the exclusive use of Malay Muslims.
The Malaysian Catholic Herald newspaper had spearheaded the fight to overthrow the ban, but its final appeal to challenge the decision that it could not use the word in its Malay edition was rejected in January this year by the Federal Court, the country’s highest legal authority.
In Ireland’s case, she had emphasized that she had the constitutional right to import and possess material that contained the word ‘Allah’ for God. Malay is the ‘lingua franca’ of Melanau Christians and other indigenous peoples of Malaysia’s northern Borneo states of Sarawak and Sabah, and hence they have a constitutional right to use the Malay term for God.
The Government maintained that it had the authority to confiscate the material, under the Printing Presses and Publications Act, if the CDs were likely to be “prejudicial to public order”. Islamic authorities claim that Christian usage of ‘Allah’, a word whose roots precede the birth of Islam, would confuse Muslim Malays and so propagate the Christian faith among them.
Ireland’s case was first heard in May 2009 and the High Court granted her leave for a judicial review. In July 2014 the High Court ordered the Government to return the spiritual material to her and pay $5,000 ringgit (US$1,335) towards her legal costs. But the Government refused to return the CDs and appealed against the ruling, resulting in this appeal decision.
Lawyers for the Government said they would await instructions on whether to file an appeal against this verdict.
The Borneo Evangelical Church of Sabah and Sarawak, of which Ireland is a member, said it hoped that the case would finally be settled when the CDs were returned.
In tandem with the Government’s decision to challenge the earlier ruling, Ireland had filed a counter-appeal seeking a resolution on her constitutional right to use the word ‘Allah’.
Of the judgment, Andrew Khoo, a lawyer who held a watching brief for the Christian Federation of Malaysia, Bible Society of Malaysia and the Anglican Diocese of West Malaysia, said it was a fair and brave decision.
The decision provides a measure of comfort to Malaysian Christians whose faith and places of worship have come under attack from Islamic extremists in recent years.