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Vatican envoy denies interfering in Malaysia spat

July 16, 2013

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — The first Vatican ambassador to Muslim-majority Malaysia on Tuesday denied trying to interfere in a sensitive legal battle over the use of “Allah” as a translation for God.

Some Muslim activists have urged authorities to expel Archbishop Joseph Marino for commenting on efforts by the Roman Catholic Church’s newspaper in Malaysia to overturn a government ban on “Allah” as a Malay-language translation for God.

Marino had been quoted as saying in remarks to Malaysian journalists last week that a leading Malaysian Christian group had presented “logical and acceptable” arguments to support its stance.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman called Marino on Tuesday to his office, where Marino assured him that those comments “were never intended as an attempt to intrude into the internal affairs of the country,” Marino’s office said in a statement.

Marino asked the minister “to convey apologies for any misunderstandings and inconveniences that it may have caused,” the statement said.

The Foreign Ministry said in a separate statement that Anifah advised Marino to “be mindful of the religious sensitivities of the host country” and asked him to “observe the basic principles in diplomatic practices and non-interference with the domestic affairs of the host country.”

Marino arrived in Malaysia this year to become the first Vatican ambassador after diplomatic ties were established in 2011.

Critics of Malaysia’s Muslim-dominated government say it fails to respect Christian, Buddhist and Hindu minorities. Prime Minister Najib Razak has repeatedly said he wants to protect the rights of both Muslims and non-Muslims.

One sensitive subject is the dispute over “Allah.” A 2009 court verdict allowed non-Muslims to use “Allah,” but anger among some Muslims over the ruling sparked a brief string of arson and vandalism attacks that mostly targeted churches.

The government has appealed the verdict, but hearing dates have not been scheduled.

Some Islamic officials believe the use of “Allah” in non-Muslim texts could be used to convert Muslims, who comprise nearly two-thirds of Malaysia’s 29 million people. Christian representatives deny this, saying that Christians who speak in the Malay language, mainly in Malaysian states on Borneo island, have long used the word to refer to God in their Bibles and songs before authorities sought to enforce the ban in recent years.

In a separate case that has angered some Malaysian Muslims, authorities have questioned two ethnic Chinese bloggers who put up a photo on Facebook that showed them eating a pork dish while conveying greetings to Muslims during the current Islamic holy fasting month of Ramadan.

The bloggers have apologized and indicated that they meant it to be humorous. However, Malaysia’s police chief on Tuesday said they were being investigated and could be charged with causing religious disharmony, which is punishable by up to four years in jail.

Update hourly