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Churches attacked in deepening row over use of word 'Allah'

Three Malaysian churches have been targeted with firebombs, leaving one badly damaged, in an escalating dispute over the use of the word "Allah" by non-Muslims. Muslim groups are organising a nationwide protest Friday.

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AFP - Three Malaysian churches have been targeted with firebombs, leaving one badly damaged, in an escalating dispute over the use of the word "Allah" by non-Muslims.

As Muslim groups prepared to hold nationwide protests Friday, police stepped up security around churches after one in suburban Kuala Lumpur was set ablaze in a midnight attack that gutted its ground floor.

Molotov cocktails were thrown into the compounds of two other churches but did not cause serious damage.

Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein appealed for calm amid the conflict over the use of "Allah" as a translation for "God" by Christians, and moved to assure minorities in Malay-dominated Malaysia that "they are safe".

"I take the events that happened last night very seriously," he told a press conference. "We want to assure the public that this was not a coordinated and well-planned action."

"Let's hope for the best in a few hours' time," he said of the protests planned for after Friday prayers, centred on the national mosque in the capital.

Police chief Musa Hassan said officers had been deployed to protect churches around the country and to monitor protests at mosques, following the attacks and phone threats against churches.

Amid conflicting statements from the government and police over whether the protests would be allowed to go ahead, Musa said police would not enter mosque compounds but would advise crowds to disperse.

"If you try taking any action that will affect security, then we the police will take action," he said.

Pribumi Perkasa, one of the groups organising the demonstrations, condemned the fire-bombings but warned that Muslim Malays, who dominate the population, were deeply concerned.

"We will continue to voice our feelings in protests today because you cannot stop the outflow of feelings on this issue," the group's president, Ibrahim Ali, told AFP.

"I think it may have been because of restricting Muslims from voicing their anger and fears that the church attacks took place. You must understand that if Muslims are unhappy, I'm sure there will be no peace in this country."

The High Court last week ruled in favour of the Catholic "Herald" newspaper which has used "Allah" as a translation for "God" in its Malay-language section. The government has said the word should be used only by Muslims.

The ruling was suspended on Wednesday pending an appeal, after the government argued the decision could cause racial conflict in Malaysia, which is home to large ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities.

The ground floor of the three-storey Metro Tabernacle church, part of the Assemblies of God movement, was destroyed in the fire-bombing.

"Witnesses saw four people smash the glass and throw incendiaries into the church building. They came on two motorcycles," church leader Peter Yeow told AFP, warning other churches to "double their guard" against any attacks.

Several hours later, the Catholic Church of the Assumption in Kuala Lumpur's southwest was targeted, parish priest Philip Muthu said.

"I was awoken by men riding on motorcycles who threw a kerosene bomb into the church compound," he told AFP, adding that the fire damaged part of the grounds.

A Molotov cocktail was also thrown into the front porch of the nearby protestant Life Chapel church.

"The bomb damaged the wall and plants in the area but thankfully no one was injured," said church elder Wong Sai Wong.

Religion and language are sensitive issues in multiracial Malaysia, which experienced deadly race riots in 1969.

The row over the use of "Allah" is among a string of religious disputes that have erupted in recent years, straining relations between Malays and minority ethnic Chinese and Indians who fear the country is being "Islamised."

More than half of Malaysia's Catholics are from indigenous groups, most of whom live in the Borneo island states and who mainly speak Malay.

 

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