KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Malaysian police Wednesday announced the arrest of eight men who allegedly attacked a Christian church with a firebomb — the first suspects in a spate of unprecedented assaults on churches that raised religious tensions in this Muslim-majority nation.
The attacks on 11 churches and a Sikh temple followed a Dec. 31 court verdict that allowed non-Muslims to use the word "Allah" to refer to God. The verdict upset many ethnic Malay Muslims who insist that letting Christians use the word could confuse some Muslims and entice them to convert.
The dispute has strained ties between Malays, who make up nearly two-thirds of Malaysia's 28 million people, and religious minorities, which often complain about what they believe is institutionalized religious discrimination.
Authorities detained eight suspects since Tuesday in connection to a Jan. 7 attack on Kuala Lumpur's Metro Tabernacle Church, which had its office gutted by fire, said Bakri Zinin, the federal police chief of criminal investigations. It was the first and most serious of all the attacks on churches.
"We believe that we solved this case," Bakri told a news conference.
The suspects were all Malays from 21 to 26 years old, according to a police statement. Police tracked them down after one of them sought treatment at a hospital for burn injuries, Bakri said.
They could be charged with "mischief by fire or explosive substance with intent to destroy" a place of worship, which is punishable by a maximum 20-year prison sentence and a fine. Police have obtained a court order to detain the men for at least a week pending further investigation.
The disquiet centers on a court ruling in which the Herald, the newspaper of the Roman Catholic Church in Malaysia, 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 verdict overturned a years-old government ban on the use of the word in non-Muslim publications.
The government has appealed the decision while also condemning the church attacks and pledging to uphold freedom of religion guaranteed to minorities by the constitution.
Among the attacks in various Malaysian states, eight churches were firebombed, two were splashed with paint, one had its window broken, while a Sikh temple was pelted with stones, apparently because Sikhs use "Allah" in their scriptures.
Suspected vandals threw a rum bottle at a mosque last weekend in the first attack on a Muslim house of worship.
The controversy has reinforced concerns that the country is coming under the influence of hard-line Islam.
Minorities have complained of difficulties in obtaining approval to build new churches and temples. Last year, dozens of Muslims paraded with the bloodied head of a cow, a sacred animal in Hinduism, to protest the proposed relocation of a Hindu temple in their neighborhood.