KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Malaysia's top court on Monday upheld a lower court ruling that non-Muslims cannot use the word "Allah" to refer to God, adding to a contentious debate that has reinforced complaints that religious minorities are treated unfairly in the Muslim-majority country.
But the implications of the 4-3 ruling by the Federal Court were immersed in confusion after the government issued a tersely-worded statement saying that the ruling only applied to the newspaper in the case, The Herald, a Catholic Malay-language weekly, and that Malaysian Christians can still use the word Allah in church services.
Government officials didn't clarify whether the ban would apply to Bibles and other published material. Earlier this year, 300 Malay-language Bibles containing the word Allah were seized by Islamic authorities from the office of a Christian group.
Last year's ruling by the Court of Appeals that banned The Herald from using Allah, saying the term wasn't integral to the Christian faith and that it would cause confusion. The church had asked the Federal Court to overturn the ruling, but the court decided not to hear the challenge, declaring that the lower court's decision had been correct.
"We are disappointed. The four judges who denied us the right to appeal did not touch on fundamental basic rights of minorities," said Rev. Lawrence Andrew, editor of The Herald.
The ruling would have a chilling effect on the freedom of religion, guaranteed in the constitution, Andrew said.
"It will confine the freedom of worship," he said. "We are a minority in this country, and when our rights are curtailed, people feel it."
The law doesn't clearly stipulate the penalty for violating the ban, but it appears that a newspaper using the term would lose its license.
The government says Allah should be reserved exclusively for Muslims, who account for nearly two-thirds of the population, arguing that if other religions use the term, that could confuse Muslims and lead them to convert away from Islam.
Christian leaders deny this, arguing that the ban is unreasonable because Christians who speak the Malay language have long used the word in their Bibles, prayers and songs. Christians make up about 9 percent of the population.
"This is a sad state of affairs that shows how far and fast religious tolerance is falling in Malaysia," said Phil Robertson, a spokesman for Human Rights Watch. "The Malaysian government should be working to promote freedom of religion rather politically exploiting religious wedge issues."
The controversy has provoked violence in Malaysia.
Anger over a lower court ruling against the government ban in 2009 led to a string of arson attacks and vandalism at churches and other places of worship. A 2013 judgment by the Court of Appeals reversed that decision, prompting the Catholic church to ask the Federal Court to overturn it.
An umbrella group of Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox churches in Malaysia said Christians will continue to use the word Allah in their Bibles and worship, saying the court ruling was only confined to the Catholic newspaper.
"We maintain that the Christian community continues to have the right to use the word 'Allah' in our Bibles, church services and Christian gatherings," Rev. Eu Hong Seng, chairman of the Christian Federation of Malaysia, said in a statement.
Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told reporters he welcomed the ruling, but said he hoped no groups would politicize the matter and use it to divide races.
"This is an emotional issue that can affect the country's (racial) harmony. We must handle it with wisdom," he said. "The court has made a decision, so let's accept it."
Some experts believe the Allah issue is an attempt by Prime Minister Najib Razak's ruling Malay party to strengthen its conservative Muslim voter base. Religion has become an easy tool because government policies have made Islam and Malay identity inseparable.
"This is a situation that is peculiar to Malaysia. It is tied to politics and the identity of Malays. It is a bending of the interpretation of Islam to suit Malay politics and Malay interests," said Ibrahim Suffian, who heads the Merdeka Center opinion research company.
The issue hasn't surfaced in other majority Muslim nations with sizeable Christian minorities.
In Egypt, where at least 10 percent of the population is Christian, both Muslims and Christians refer to God as "Allah," and this hasn't generated any controversy or antagonism. Christians often refer to God as "al-Rab" in their liturgy, but use "Allah" more frequently in their daily life.
The same is true for Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation. Both groups use "Allah" — although Christians pronounce it "Al-lah" and Muslims say "Al-loh," so you can tell which religion the speaker is — but this hasn't caused friction.