Malaysia court sentences 2 Muslim brothers to 5 years in prison for torching Christian church

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — A Malaysian court sentenced two Muslim brothers to five years in prison Friday for torching a Christian church during the height of a dispute over whether non-Muslims can use the word "Allah" to refer to God.

The firebombing was the first in an unprecedented string of arson attacks and vandalism at places of worship last January that threatened decades of religious harmony in this Muslim-majority country. Eleven churches, a Sikh temple, three mosques and two Muslim prayer rooms were assaulted before the tensions abated.

Two ethnic Malay Muslim brothers in their 20s were arrested and placed on trial for the Jan. 8 attack, which partially gutted a Protestant church. The attack, which did not injure anyone, came days after some Muslims were angered by a court verdict that allowed Christians to use the word "Allah" in Malay-language publications.

Komathy Suppiah, a Kuala Lumpur district court judge, convicted both suspects Friday of "mischief by fire" with the intention of destroying a place of worship. They had faced a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison, but Suppiah sentenced them to five years each.

"You have shamed the society and country. ... The message from this court must be loud and clear: Don't play with fire," Suppiah said as the men listened grimly.

However, she allowed them to remain free on bail until their appeal can be heard.

Both men had pleaded innocent. They testified 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 suspects, Raja Muhammad Faizal Raja Ibrahim, 25, was detained by police after he sought medical treatment for burn injuries. He told investigators that he suffered the burns at a barbecue gathering after he and his brother, Raja Muhammad Idzham, 23, left the church area.

Judge Suppiah ruled that their testimony was riddled with inconsistencies.

The Rev. Hermen Shastri, an official with the Council of Churches of Malaysia, praised the court's decision.

"This serves as a reminder to all citizens of the country that violence against religious places — be it whatever religion — will not be tolerated," Shastri told The Associated Press. "This is a clear signal that basically the majority of Malaysians are peace-loving."

Several other suspects have also been arrested in connection to various attacks last January that caused mostly minor damage at places of worship nationwide.

The attacks subsided after the government bolstered security and urged people not to undermine amicable ties between Malay Muslims, who account for nearly two-thirds of Malaysia's 28 million people, and minority ethnic Chinese and Indians who mainly practice Buddhism, Christianity or Hinduism.

Tensions initially 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 might confuse Muslims and tempt them to convert. The government has appealed the verdict.

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