KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — A Malaysian church was attacked with firebombs early Monday, police said, escalating tensions in a long-running dispute over the use of the word "Allah" by non-Muslims.
Penang state police chief Abdul Rahim Hanafi said two men on a motorcycle threw Molotov cocktails into the compound of The Assumption Church. No one was injured. The attack came after unknown people hung a provocative banner outside five Penang churches, including The Assumption, on Sunday. The banner read in English: "Allah is great, Jesus is the son of Allah."
The churches said they had nothing to do with the banner and that it was put up to create animosity between Muslims and Christians in the majority-Muslim Southeast Asian nation. They complained to police.
The wording of the banner was likely to be highly provocative to Muslims. Hardliners and the government object to the use of "Allah" by Christians, saying that it could confuse Muslims and lead them to convert. Muslims don't believe Allah had a son.
Allah is the Arabic word for God and commonly used in the Malay language to refer to God. The government says Allah should be exclusively reserved for Muslims. Critics say it is pandering to Muslim, Malay supporters by raising the issue, which has rumbled on for several years but flared anew recently.
Christians in Malaysia said the restriction violates their religious rights. The incident in Penang has sparked worries of more widespread religious violence such as in 2010, when more than a dozen churches and other places of worship came under arson attacks and vandalism because of the tussle over the use of Allah.
John David, a supervisor with the Penang Catholic Church city parish, said the banner mysteriously appeared outside four Catholic and one Lutheran church on Sunday morning. He said he believed it was the work of individuals out to create religious animosity.
"We are worried. We have been living in harmony all this while," he said. Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng condemned the act, saying it was the work of "religious extremists and racial bigots" who want to sow discord in the opposition-ruled state. Police said they will increase patrols at churches.
The row deepened after a court last October ruled in favor of the government. Earlier this month, Islamic authorities seized more than 300 Malay-language Bibles from the office of a Christian group because they used the word Allah. Bibles in the Iban language, which is used by an indigenous group on Borneo island, were also seized for using the word Allah.
About 60 percent of Malaysia's 29 million people are Malay Muslims, while Christians make up about 9 percent of the population.