KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia's government agreed Tuesday to release some 35,000 imported Bibles seized by customs officials amid a dispute over their use of the word "Allah" as a translation for God.
The decision was a major step by the Muslim-dominated government to soothe frustrations among religious minorities. Last week, Malaysia's main Christian grouping said it was fed up and disillusioned with authorities' refusal to allow the distribution of the Malay-language Bibles.
The Prime Minister's Department said in a statement that the government was releasing the books, which have been held for months at two ports, because it was "committed to resolve amicably any interfaith issues."
But the statement also assured Muslims that the announcement would not jeopardize their interests in an ongoing court case on whether non-Muslims have the constitutional right to use "Allah."
Authorities have long placed restrictions on the distribution of Malay-language Bibles, mainly imported from Indonesia. Such Bibles must be stamped with the words "For Christians Only," which is generally meant to prevent anyone from trying to convert Muslims, who comprise nearly 60 percent of Malaysia's 28 million people.
Authorities say they fear that Malay-language Christian texts using the word "Allah" for God will confuse Muslims.
The Rev. Hermen Shastri, an official with the Council of Churches of Malaysia, welcomed the government's decision but stressed that Christians should be guaranteed the right to obtain the Bible in any language.
A court ruled in December 2009 that Malaysia's religious minorities — mostly Christians, Buddhists and Hindus — have the right to use "Allah." The government has appealed the verdict, but no hearings have been scheduled.
The dispute caused a brief surge in tensions in January 2010, when 11 churches were attacked by firebombs amid anger among some Muslims over the court ruling.