KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Malaysia's government said it would allow Malay-language Bibles to be printed locally, in a major concession to the country's minority Christian community to soothe anger over seized shipments of their holy books.
The government's announcement late Saturday comes ahead of an April 16 election in Sarawak state on Borneo island, where Christians account for more than 40 percent of the population. The poll is seen as a crucial barometer of support for Muslim-majority Malaysia's ruling coalition that may determine whether it will call early general elections.
Christians have been angered over the seizures of tens of thousands of imported Malay-language Bibles by Malaysian customs authorities, some since 2009.
The seized Bibles violate a government ban on non-Muslim texts that use the word "Allah" as a translation for God amid concern it could confuse Muslims or be used to convert them. Malaysian Christians say the ban is unfair because the Arabic word is a common reference for God that predates Islam.
Idris Jala, a minister in the Prime Minister's Department, said in a statement that Bibles in all languages, including Malay, can now be printed locally. The move extends an olive branch to Christians, who previously had to import Malay-language Bibles from Indonesia.
Jala pledged there would be no restrictions on Malay-language Bibles in Sabah and Sarawak states on Borneo, where there are large Christian communities.
However, he said books that are imported or printed in peninsula Malaysia must carry the words "Christian publication" and the sign of the cross on its front cover, in a move likely made to appease the country's Muslim community.
The Christian Federation of Malaysia, which represents most of the country's churches, said Sunday that church leaders will meet next week to discuss the government's offer.
One of the Christian Federation's leaders, the Rev. Hermen Shastri, said the proposal did not address the group's call to revoke a long-standing government order that deems the Malay-language Bible a threat to national security.
"The fact that the government is maintaining that position is a denial of our rights because the Bible is our holy book that enlightens people and not a threat to security," he told The Associated Press.
It is unclear how the move would affect an ongoing court case on whether non-Muslims have the constitutional right to use the word "Allah."
The government is appealing a December 2009 court ruling that religious minorities have the right to use "Allah." The verdict caused a brief surge in tensions last year, when 11 churches were attacked amid anger among some Muslims.
Muslims comprise nearly two-thirds of Malaysia's 28 million people, while Christians are about 10 percent.