2 Muslim Malaysian brothers testify in court to deny charge of torching church during tensions

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Two Malaysian Muslims testified in court Tuesday to deny charges that they torched a Christian church in an incident that set off a string of assaults on places of worship early this year.

The firebombing of the church raised religious tensions in this Muslim-majority country last January following a court verdict that allowed Christians to use the word "Allah" in Malay-language publications.

The verdict angered some Muslims and became the apparent trigger for an unprecedented series of arson attacks and vandalism at 11 churches. A Sikh temple, three mosques and two Muslim prayer rooms were also attacked, but tensions abated after authorities bolstered security at places of worship and called for calm.

Two brothers in their 20s are on trial for the most serious attack, which partially gutted a Protestant church in Kuala Lumpur on Jan. 8. They face up to 20 years in prison if convicted of "mischief by fire" with the intention of destroying a place of worship.

Both men testified in a district court for the first time Tuesday, claiming they were at a restaurant when they heard people planning to attack the nearby church. They said they went to the church and saw unidentified men smashing its window and setting it ablaze.

One of the brothers, Raja Muhammad Faizal Raja Ibrahim, was detained by police after he sought medical treatment for burn injuries. He alleged Tuesday he suffered the burns at a barbecue gathering after he left the church area.

"I don't know who burned (the church), who was the mastermind," Raja Muhammad Faizal said. "I wanted to see what would happen ... I just followed."

The attacks threatened decades of harmony between ethnic Malay Muslims, who comprise nearly two-thirds of Malaysia's 28 million people, and minority ethnic Chinese and Indians who mainly practice Buddhism, Christianity or Hinduism.

Tensions rose after The Herald, the newspaper of the Roman Catholic Church in Malaysia, challenged a government ban on the use of "Allah" in its Malay-language publication.

A Dec. 31 court ruling granted the paper the right to use the word. Some Muslims insist that using "Allah" in Christian literature may confuse Muslims and tempt them to convert. The government has appealed the verdict.

Minorities sometimes complain their religious rights are not respected by Malaysia's government, which denies any bias.