Two Muslims jailed 5 years for Malaysia church arson

Eleven churches and three mosques were assaulted before the tensions abated.

Kuala Lumpur: A Malaysian court sentenced two Muslim brothers to five years in prison on 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 January 08 attack, which partially gutted a Protestant church. The attack, which did not kill or 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 on 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, 24, was detained by police after he sought medical treatment for burn injuries. He alleged he suffered the burns at a barbecue gathering after he and his brother, Raja Muhammad Idzham, 20, left the church area.

Judge Suppiah ruled that their testimony was riddled with inconsistencies.

The attack was "an appalling and despicable thing to do. It strikes at the very foundation and tenets of a civilised society”, the judge said.

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 December 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.

Bureau Report

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