KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia - Malaysia's king urged authorities Monday to take stern action against religious hatemongers amid government efforts to rebuild trust following a dispute over the use of the word "Allah" by non-Muslims.
The remarks by Sultan Mizan Zainal Abidin in his annual speech to Parliament underscored lingering concerns about racial solidarity, two months after a string of attacks on mostly Christian churches apparently sparked by a spat over whether only Muslims should be allowed to use "Allah" to refer to God.
Malaysia's constitutional monarch did not specifically refer to the dispute or the attacks, but urged "all parties to take heed of black marks in our country's history and avoid raising sensitive issues that could jeopardize public peace and the people's harmonious lives."
Sultan Mizan said he wanted authorities to take "stern action" against people who exploit freedom of speech to cause conflicts. The text of the king's yearly speech to inaugurate a new parliamentary session is generally prepared by the government and reflects its policies.
The king did not elaborate, but government authorities have said that racial instigators could be detained under the Internal Security Act, which provides for indefinite detention without trial.
So far, 10 people have been charged in court in connection with some of the firebomb attacks and vandalism on 11 churches, a Sikh temple, three mosques and two Muslim prayer rooms in January. Most of them have been identified as Muslims and face up to 20 years in prison if convicted of attempting to destroy places of worship.
The attacks began on churches before spreading to other houses of worship shortly after Malaysia's High Court ruled on New Year's Eve that Christians can use "Allah" to refer to God in the Malay language _ a decision that angered many among the ethnic Malay Muslim majority.
The government has appealed the verdict, arguing that the non-Muslim use of "Allah" can confuse Muslims and even lure them to convert. Christians say they have used the word for centuries in their literature.
The dispute has fueled accusations by minorities, who are mainly ethnic Chinese and Indians, that the Muslim-dominated government is slow to protect their interests compared to its strong defense of Islam, the official religion of nearly two-thirds of Malaysia's 28 million people. The government denies any unfair discrimination.