BANGKOK, Thailand (RNS) The Vatican’s first envoy to Muslim-majority Malaysia should quit and go back to Rome, angry Malaysian Islamists said after the Roman Catholic cleric said Christians may use the Arabic word “Allah” to describe God.
In an escalating confrontation, dozens of Islamists marched to the Vatican’s mission in Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, after prayers at a mosque on Friday (July 19), and presented a 670-word memorandum demanding his recall.
The troubled envoy, Archbishop Joseph Marino of Alabama, arrived in the Southeast Asian country in April.
Marino’s problems began after his interview with reporters on July 11, when he spoke about the Christian Federation of Malaysia’s controversial decision to call God “Allah,” the Arabic word for God.
“It seems to be quite logical and acceptable,” Marino said in the interview.
Some Muslims complained, and the Malaysian government summoned Marino on July 16 to discuss the issue.
Hours later, Marino responded that his interview was “never intended as an attempt to intrude into the internal affairs of the country.”
Marino’s statement, however, inflamed Islamists who see the use of the word “Allah” as a bold attempt to convert Muslims to Christianity.
“The Vatican Envoy’s statement is reflective of the Vatican City’s sheer ignorance of the special place given to Islam as the religion” of Malaysia, the protest memorandum said.
The Islamists were supported by hard-line organizations trying to increase the use of Shariah law in Malaysia.
“Joseph Marino is an enemy of the state,” said Imbrahim Ali, president of Peraksa, a conservative, nongovernmental organization, according to Agence France-Presse. “His actions have strained race relations in the country.”
Muslims, who are mostly ethnic Malay, comprise 60 percent of Malaysia’s nearly 30 million residents.
Christians number about 9 percent — mostly ethnic Chinese and Indians — including 800,000 Catholics.
The Islamists also demanded “an official apology from Vatican City to the people of Malaysia for such an offensive statement.”
The controversy erupted in 2009 when some Christians in Malaysia published Bibles and other religious literature translated into the country’s official language, Bahasa Malaysia.
The Christians translated “God” as “Allah.”
Malaysian Islamists, however, said Christians were using the word Allah to convert Muslims, which is a crime in Malaysia.
The government then banned publications using the word Allah to identify a non-Muslim God.
A local Catholic newspaper, The Herald, sued.
The High Court ruled against the government and legalized the word Allah for use by non-Muslims.
Soon after, several churches in Malaysia were firebombed, and the government appealed the case, which is currently pending.