4 Arrested in Attacks on Muslim Prayer Halls in Malaysia

Malaysian police have arrested four men over arson attacks on two Muslim prayer halls, the latest on places of worship amid a dispute over the use of the word "Allah" by Christians, the national news agency reported Saturday.

Assailants have targeted 11 churches, a Sikh temple, a mosque and at least two Islamic prayer halls in various states across the Muslim-majority country since Jan. 8. The attacks mainly involved firebombs that caused minor damage and no injuries, though one church was partially gutted.

The attacks followed an uproar among Malay Muslims over a Dec. 31 court ruling 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. The government has appealed the verdict.

On Friday, police arrested four young men believed to have started fires the previous day at two small Islamic prayer halls in southern Johor state, the national deputy police chief, Ismail Omar, was quoted as saying by the Bernama news agency.

"Their true motive is unknown," Bernama quoted Ismail as saying. "They did it without careful thought."

Neither prayer hall sustained major damage. One had its curtain set ablaze before passers-by noticed the fire and doused it, while the other had burn marks on its carpet, doors and walls.

Ismail did not give details of the suspects' ethnicity or religion, or say how they were tracked down. Police officials were not immediately available to confirm the arrests.

Officials have declined to say whether the attacks were in retaliation to a string of earlier ones on churches.

Earlier this week, police detained 15 Muslim men accused of attacking three churches.

All the suspects could be charged with "mischief by fire" with the intention of destroying a place of worship, which is punishable by a maximum 20-year prison sentence and a fine.

Government authorities have denounced the attacks as a threat to decades of amicable relations between 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.