KUALA LUMPUR: January 8, 2009. (Lauren Frayer) Three churches were firebombed early Friday in Malaysia amid escalating tension over use of the word "Allah" by non-Muslims in the country
Attackers threw a homemade gasoline bomb at a church in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, and tried to set fire to two other churches in a nearby suburb, according to witnesses and officials quoted by news agencies.
It's all part of a row that began when a Roman Catholic newsletter, the Herald, challenged a government ban on non-Muslims using the word "Allah" in any publications. It's originally an Arabic word, but has come to be used by Muslims globally to describe their god.
A police officer inspects bomb damage Friday at a church in Desa Melawati, Malaysia.
The Catholic newsletter wanted to use the word in its Malay-language edition, arguing that for Christian indigenous tribes in eastern Malaysia, "Allah" is the only word they have ever known to describe their god.
Last week, a Malaysian court overturned the ban on use of the word by non-Muslims – which sparked an outcry from the country's majority Muslims, some of whom say "Allah" is exclusive to Islam. A judge has since suspended implementation of the ruling, after the government appealed and the Catholic church agreed to the move to avoid any violence.
Malaysia's prime minister and the head of the country's largest Muslim opposition party both condemned Friday's attacks. Police have stepped up patrols around churches, and some Christian communities are hiring security guards.
On Thursday, hackers broke into the Web site of the Malaysian judiciary and wrote threatening messages referring to the court ruling: "Allah only restricted to Muslim only," read one message. The Web site of the Herald has also been vandalized in recent days.
Muslim groups held protest rallies after prayers at mosques across Kuala Lumpur on Friday. Most were peaceful demonstrations that stayed within the walls of mosque compounds.
In the first church attacked Friday, witnesses spotted four people on motorcycles pull up to the Metro Tabernacle Church just after midnight, break a window at the front of the church and throw something inside. Fire gutted administrative offices on the building's first floor, according to a statement on the Herald's Web site.
Molotov cocktails were thrown into two other churches in a suburb of Kuala Lumpur just before dawn, causing minor damage, it said. No one was injured in any of the attacks.
All three churches are Protestant, with no ties to the Roman Catholic church.
Malaysia's home minister, Hishammudin Hussein, appealed for calm after Friday's attacks and said he wants to make sure all religious groups in the country are safe.
"I take the events that happened last night very seriously," Hussein told Al-Jazeera. "We want to assure the public that this was not a coordinated and well-planned action."