KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Religious tensions in Muslim-majority Malaysia turned violent Friday with firebomb attacks on three churches following a court decision that allows Christians to translate God as Allah.
"Allah is only for us," said a poster waved at one of at least two protests outside mosques in Kuala Lumpur on Friday, the Muslim holy day.
Many Muslims are angry about a Dec. 31 High Court decision overturning a government ban on Roman Catholics' using "Allah" for God in the Malay-language edition of their main newspaper, the Herald.
The ruling also applies to the ban's broader applications, such as Malay-language Bibles, 10,000 copies of which were recently seized by authorities because they translated God as Allah.
"We will not allow the word Allah to be inscribed in your churches," a speaker shouted over a loudspeaker at the Kampung Bahru mosque.
The Herald says its Malay edition is read mainly by Christian indigenous tribes in the remote states of Sabah and Sarawak.
But the government contends that making Allah synonymous with God may confuse Muslims and ultimately mislead to them into converting to Christianity, a punishable offense in Malaysia despite a constitution that guarantees freedom of religion.
It suggests using "Tuhan," but Christians say Tuhan is more like "Lord," and can't replace "Allah."
Leading Muslim scholars, activists and opposition politicians have supported the Christians' right to call God Allah, and Friday's protests were relatively small, with most of the congregation ignoring them.
Still, the unprecedented church attacks compounded the difficulties for a country that prides itself on having managed to maintain broad harmony among a mix of racial and religious gaps. About 9 percent of Malaysia's 28 million people are Christian, including 800,000 Catholics, most of whom are ethnic Chinese or Indian. Muslims are 60 percent.
Minorities have long complained of discrimination. The government refuses to allow construction of new churches and temples, court verdicts in religious disputes usually favor Muslims, and an array of laws guarantee preferential treatment for Malays, the dominant and largely Muslim ethnic group, in jobs, housing and education.
"The distrust has always been there but now the minorities in Malaysia feel that they are under siege," said James Chin, who teaches political science at the Monash University in Malaysia.
The Allah ban is unusual in the Muslim world. The Arabic word is commonly used by Christians to describe God in such countries as Egypt and Syria. The confiscated Bibles came from neighboring Indonesia, an overwhelmingly Muslim country.
Bassilius Nassour, a Greek Orthodox bishop in Damascus, called the Malaysian government's position "shameful."
"It shows Malaysia to be a backward, pagan state because God teaches freedom for everyone, and the word 'Allah' is for everyone," he said.
Some government critics suggest the Allah ban is designed to win back Muslim voters who deserted Prime Minister Najib Razak's United Malays National Organization party in the 2008 general election – a charge Najib denies. He condemned the church attacks and promised the government would "take whatever steps it can to prevent such acts."
Since the court ruling, hateful comments and threats against Christians have been posted widely on the Internet, but the attacks in suburban Kuala Lumpur, the capital, mark the first time that the Allah controversy has resulted in vandalism.
In the worst incident, the ground-floor office of the three-story Metro Tabernacle Church was gutted by a firebomb thrown by attackers on motorcycles, police said. The upstairs prayer halls were undamaged.
Two other churches were attacked hours later, one suffering minor damage while the other was undamaged.
At least one other church canceled its Friday Mass and locked its doors, fearing an attack.
"We never know what might happen because the situation is so tense," said the Rev. Father Paulino Miranda of the Church of Divine Mercy in Shah Alam, the capital of Selangor state.
Associated Press writers Eileen Ng, Julia Zappei and Sean Yoong contributed to this report.