Does Culture = Religion?

In a recent global poll from CP World, 51% of people in the world believe in ‘God or Supreme Being(s)’, while 18% do not and 17% are undecided. So how did each of these individuals learn about God, and possibly come to faith in Him? When searching for truth, it is common to look for tangible examples of a certain belief system, such as its followers and culture. To some, culture and religion go hand in hand. There is both cultural and religious significance to the Jewish community as they place the kippah on their heads. Or when Buddhist monks wear orange robes. Sometimes a single word can have both cultural and religious significance- like the Arabic word ‘Allah’ (which is mainly used by Muslims). In fact, this word ‘Allah’ has created much controversy in Malaysia recently… God, what is your religion?” This puzzling question, spotted on a T-shirt at a packed public meeting on religious freedom in the Malaysian city of Petaling Jaya last week, sums up the enormity of Malaysia’s ‘Allah’ controversy. The wearer was a Malay Muslim woman, according to The Malaysian Insider, demonstrating solidarity with the minority Christian population as tensions rise in the country over who can use the term ‘Allah’. The Christian community remains adamant that the use of ‘Allah’ is their right, despite a ruling by the Court of Appeal last October that ‘Allah’ was exclusive to Malay Muslims. The word predates the birth of Islam, and the ruling has been widely criticized by many other Muslim nations, and by the United Nations. Malaysia About 64% of Malaysia’s Christians come from the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak, where the term has been part of their vocabulary for more than 100 years. In this language, the term for God by both Christians and Muslims has been Allah. The indigenous populations of the two states, whose primary language is Bahasa Malay, claim the usage is their constitutional and spiritual right. The Malay Bible dates back to the 16th century and, as the government phases out English in favor of Bahasa Malay, more and more Christians observe their faith in Bahasa Malay. Nevertheless, Islamic conservatives have staged demonstrations outside churches, seized Bibles and continued to vilify the Catholic pastor, Rev. Lawrence Andrew, who took the issue to the courts. In early January, Andrew was questioned over charges of sedition, which drew international complaints, including a piece in The Wall Street Journal. These actions, in a country once known for multiracial harmony, go against the grain of a 10-point plan pronounced by the government of Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak in April 2011 to resolve this issue. A key element emphasized that Christians are allowed to print, import and distribute Bibles, referred to as the ‘Alkitab’ (‘The Book’) in Bahasa Malay. The Prime Minister’s ambivalence is unhelpful, according to Rev. Dr. Hermen Shastri, the general secretary of the Council of Churches of Malaysia, who said: “The government should remain consistent. It is the same government that came out with the 10-point plan. It should also defend the constitution.” The ‘Allah’ controversy began in 2007 when the government banned The Herald, a Catholic weekly newspaper, from using the word. The Catholic church contested the order, and the High Court restored its constitutional right in 2009. The government appealed that decision, and in October 2013, a three-man Court of Appeal ruled that Malay Muslims had an exclusive copyright to the word ‘Allah’. Legal experts say the court’s decision is flawed, and that its ruling, if ratified, should only apply to The Herald and not to other Christian literature, such as the Alkitab, or in liturgy. The right to freedom of worship was enshrined when Sarawak and Sabah joined Malaysia in 1963. Christian and political leaders in the two states have threatened to break away from the Malaysian union if the government forces their hand on the ‘Allah’ issue. Muslim protagonists, such as Azmi Sharom, an outspoken law lecturer, point out that nowhere in the Qur’an does it say that ‘Allah’ is exclusive to Muslims. The wearer of the T-shirt posed a fundamental question. The ball is now in the court of the Malaysian government to openly demonstrate that it subscribes to the ethos of its own constitution, its own 10-point resolution, and that it will uphold freedom of religion for all. Malaysia is ranked #40 on Open Doors’ World Watch List of countries where Christians face the most persecution for their faith in Jesus. Will you join us in prayer for this nation, and for God to reveal to Malay Christians the way to handle this issue that would bring Him most glory?

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