KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Malaysian prosecutors charged three Muslim men Friday in the firebombing of a church — the first suspects in a string of assaults on places of worship amid a dispute over whether non-Muslims can refer to God as "Allah."
Arson attacks, vandalism and other incidents at 11 churches, a Sikh temple, three mosques and two Muslim prayer halls in recent weeks have been a blow to decades of multiracial harmony in this Muslim-majority country.
The attacks, which started on churches, followed anger among Muslims over a Dec. 31 court verdict that allowed non-Muslims to use "Allah" as a translation for "God" in the Malay language. Many Malaysian Muslims believe the word should be exclusive to their religion, and that its use by others could confuse some Muslims and even tempt them to convert.
Three suspects pleaded innocent in a Kuala Lumpur district court Friday to starting a fire that partially gutted a Protestant church on Jan. 8, said government lawyer Anselm Charles Fernandis. It was the first and most serious of all the attacks on churches, most of which suffered only minor damage.
The men, who are in their 20s, face a maximum prison sentence of up to 20 years if convicted of "mischief by fire" with the intention of destroying a place of worship. The court did not immediately schedule a trial date.
Five others arrested with the men last week in connection to the same attack were released without charges.
The attacks on churches have abated in the past two weeks, though fears of tensions resurfaced Wednesday when severed heads of wild boars were found dumped at two mosques. Pigs are considered unclean by Muslims.
Government leaders have denounced the attacks on places of worship as a threat to amicable relations between ethnic Malay Muslims, 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 tensions follow a court battle in which the Herald, a Malaysian newspaper published by the Roman Catholic Church, argued it has the right to use "Allah" in its Malay-language edition because the word predates Islam. The word is also used by Christians in other predominantly Muslim countries, such as Egypt, Indonesia and Syria.
The High Court ruled last month in favor of the Herald, overturning a government ban on the use of the word in non-Muslim publications. The government has appealed the decision.
Minorities 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. The government has denied any bias.