Kuala Lumpur: Malaysia`s highest court today rejected a challenge to the ban on Christians using the word "Allah" to refer to God, ending the years-long highly divisive legal case in the Muslim-majority nation.
The case was brought by the Catholic Church, which was seeking to overturn a government ban on it referring to God by the Arabic word "Allah" in the local Malay-language edition of its Herald newspaper. The ban was first put in place in 2007.
The Herald, failed to get leave from the Federal Court to challenge the Home Ministry over the ban.
The seven-judge panel in the administrative capital Putrajaya ruled that a lower court decision siding with the government stood.
Chief Justice Ariffin Zakaria, who chaired a seven-man panel today, held this in a majority 4-3 decision. This is the first time that such a large panel has sat to hear and determine the application for leave.
In dismissing the application for leave, Justice Arifin held that the minister`s decision with regard to the ban was lawful and reasonable.
"It (the Court of Appeal) applied the correct test, and it is not open for us to interfere," Arifin said.
"By a majority of four to three, the leave application is dismissed," he said.
Justice Arifin said that Court of Appeal president Justice Raus Sharif, Chief Judge of Malaya Justice Zulkefli Ahmad Makinudin and Federal Court judge Justice Suriyadi Halim Omar had read his judgement and agreed with him.
In a dissenting judgement, Chief Judge of Sabah and Sarawak Justice Richard Malanjum said leave should be given in consideration of the degree of public importance of the case and the necessity of the Federal Court to resolve questions of law.
The seven-member panel, on March 5, heard submissions from both parties on the leave application.
The Federal Court`s decision not to grant leave effectively means that the decision of the Court of Appeal stands and there can be no more appeals by the Church.
The legal tussle goes back to 2009, when the Roman Catholic Church, led by Archbishop Murphy Pakiam, filed a judicial review application, naming the Home Ministry and the Government as respondents, seeking, among others, a declaration that the ministry`s decision to prohibit the use of the word "Allah" in The Herald was illegal.
The Court of Appeal had set aside the Dec 31, 2009 decision of a High Court, which allowed the weekly to use the word after it declared the Home Ministry`s decision in prohibiting the publication from using the word "Allah" was illegal, null and void.
Meanwhile, the Christian Federation of Malaysia (CFM) said that the minority community will continue to use the word "Allah" in its Bibles, church services and gatherings despite the country`s Federal Court` decision.
"Given the refusal to grant The Roman Catholic Church leave to appeal, we treat the decision of the Court of Appeal as being confined to the specific facts of that particular case," said CFM chairman Dr Eu Hong Seng in a statement here.
"The Christian community continues to have the right to use the word `Allah` in our Bibles, church services and Christian gatherings in our on-going ministry to our Bahasa Malaysia-speaking congregations, as we have done all this while," Eu said.
He said Attorney General Abdul Gani Patail had earlier said in a statement issued on Oct 20 2013, that the case surrounds the usage of the word "Allah" in The Herald newspaper only.
"As legal adviser to the Malaysian government, we will hold him (Gani) and the government of Malaysia to that position," said Eu.
Eu said that on behalf of the CFM, he "is extremely disappointed" that the Federal Court has refused leave for the Roman Catholic Church to appeal against the decision of the Court of Appeal in The Herald?case.
The Herald`s editor Father Lawrence Andrew expressed his "great disappointment" .
Andrew, however, added that today`s matter was not a game of who wins and loses.
"As we live, we will always respect one another and live as brothers and sisters," he said, adding that they will abide by the decision.
Counsel Cyrus Das, who led the legal team representing appellant the Titular Roman Catholic Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur, said they are considering whether to file an application for review of today`s decision.