Allah row worsens
Kuala Lumpur - Arsonists attacked at least three churches in Malaysia early on Friday, prompting tighter police checks at churches nationwide ahead of mass demonstrations in a row over the use of the word "Allah" for the Christian God.
Protests were due to take place later in the day to denounce a court ruling last week in predominantly Muslim Malaysia allowing the Catholic Herald newspaper to use "Allah" in its Malay-language publication.
The impact on Malaysia's financial market has been muted, but analysts said the issue could pose a longer term risk of political instability for Malaysia, which has been trailing Indonesia and Thailand for foreign investment.
A fire at the Metro Tabernacle church in suburban Kuala Lumpur, part of a Pentecostal group called "The Assemblies of God", gutted a ground-floor administrative office.
Firebombs were later tossed into the compound of at least two more churches - the Assumption Catholic Church and the Life Chapel Protestant church - in the leafy outlying district of Petaling Jaya, but both failed to explode.
Police ordered tightened security at churches throughout the country and called for the cancellation of protests, due to take place after Friday prayers at mosques.
"Since last night, I have instructed all patrol cars to patrol all church areas. We are monitoring all churches," Musa Hassan, Inspector-General of Police, told Reuters.
"I have advised them (protesters) to let this be handled by the court. I will take action against anyone who acts to jeopardise national security."
Prime Minister Najib Razak's ruling coalition suffered its worst defeats in the 2008 general election due in part to unhappiness by the mainly Chinese and Indian ethnic minorities over increasing Islamisation and failed reform pledges.
The issue could deepen minority dissatisfaction and hamper Najib's efforts to win back non-Malay support to stay in power after the next polls, to be held by 2013.
"The ball is now in Najib's court. All eyes are on him and the Home Ministry," said Ooi Kee Beng from the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in neighbouring Singapore. "Will they enforce the rule of law or be seen enforcing the rule of law without fear or favour, this is the next thing to watch for."
The government has appealed the court ruling, which has threatened relations between the majority Malay Muslim population and the minority communities who practise a range of religions including Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism.
On Thursday night, the government's judiciary website (http://www.mahkamah.gov.my) was attacked by hackers amid growing anger over the court ruling.
The Malaysian Insider, an online news site, captured a screen shot of the defaced website which contained the warning "Allah only restricted to Muslims only".
It is illegal for non-Muslims to proselytise Muslims although freedom of worship for minorities making up 40% of the population is guaranteed under the constitution.
Malaysia was rated as having "very high" government restrictions on religion in a recent survey by the Pew Forum, bracketing it with the likes of Iran and Egypt. It was listed as the 9th most restrictive of 198 countries.
The use of "Allah" has been common among non-English speaking Malaysian Christians in the states of Sabah and Sarawak - on the island of Borneo off mainland Malaysia - for decades without any incident.