Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy ...

The Orthodox church that I attend is part of the ancient Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese, which means that its ancient liturgical language is Arabic, even though our pan-Orthodox congregation uses English about 99 percent of the time. However, during the years that I lived in South Florida -- a period that including Sept. 11, 2001 -- I attended a parish in which the majority of the members were of Syrian, Palestinian and Lebanese descent. Obviously, the ancient, and often the daily, liturgical language of this particular parish was Arabic.

Thus, when we sang one of the most ancient hymns of Christianity, the English words were: "Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us."

However, when we sang the same words in Arabic, they sounded something like this: "Quddouson Allaah, Quddouson ul-qawee, Quddouson ulladhee la yamout, Irhamna."

Note the presence of the word "Allaah." That is the Arabic word for God and, in Orthodox circles, there is no doubt about that when services are sung in Arabic. The language is the language and the ancient churches of the East are older than Islam.

It is interesting to note that, here in the West, there have been lively discussions of whether -- when speaking English -- Muslims should simply say "God," instead of continuing to substitute "Allah."

In other parts of the world, tragically, these kinds of debates are literally causing riots. Here is the top of a relevant New York Times piece from the other day:

BANGKOK -- An uproar among Muslims in Malaysia over the use of the word Allah by Christians spread over the weekend with the firebombing and vandalizing of several churches, increasing tensions at a time of political turbulence.

Arsonists struck three churches and a convent school early Sunday, and black paint was splashed on another church. This followed the firebombing of four churches on Friday and Saturday. No injuries were reported, and only one church, Metro Tabernacle in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, had extensive damage.

The attacks, unlike anything Malaysia has experienced before, have shaken the country, where many Muslims are angry over a Dec. 31 court ruling that overturned a government ban on the use of the word Allah to denote the Christian God.

Though that usage is common in many countries, where Arabic -- and Malay -- language Bibles describe Jesus as the "son of Allah," many Muslims here insist that the word belongs exclusively to them and say that its use by other faiths could confuse Muslim worshipers. That dispute, in turn, has been described by some observers as a sign of political maneuvering, as the governing party struggles to maintain its dominance after setbacks in national and state elections in March 2008.

And there you have it. In this story, the entire conflict is about politics and Malay identity. If you are going to say you are truly Malay, then this means that you are Muslim. If you are a Muslim, God is Allah. If you are not a Muslim, you are (a) not worshiping Allah and (b) not truly Malay.

The story does, while offering detailed discussions of the political realities, pause to give us the crucial numbers on who is who in this increasingly tense nation.

The tensions are shaking a multiethnic, multiracial state that has tried to maintain harmony among its citizens: mostly Muslim Malays, who make up 60 percent of the population, and minority Chinese and Indians, who mostly practice Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism. About 9 percent of Malaysia's population of 28 million people are Christians, most of them Chinese or Indian. Analysts say this is the first outright confrontation between Muslims and Christians. ...

The line between race and religion is blurred in a country where the Constitution equates Muslim and Malay identities, said Jacqueline Ann Surin, editor of The Nut Graph, an analytical Malaysian news site.

"Malaysia is peculiar in that we have race-based politics and over the past decade or so we have seen an escalation of this notion that Malay Malaysians are superior," she said.

What the story never does is give the reader any clue as to how the word "Allah" is used in worship or in religious education by different flocks of Christians and others who use the word "God." What does this law require people to do, insert the English word "God" into texts written in Arabic or Malay? Could we have at least one practical example of what is at stake here? Is it illegal to carry a Bible containing the proper "Allaah" language?

I have more questions. Is this an issue in Catholic rites performed in Malay? Does it affect any Orthodox Christians who worship in Arabic or Malay? Is this violence targeting churches that are especially evangelistic? How many Protestants are in Malaysia? What about other religious groups that use God language?

Once again, the story does a fine job of handling the political details, but there is more to this story than politics. What are the details on the ground, in terms of how this affects the actual religious groups whose sanctuaries are being burned? How does the current law affect their lives? Are they rebelling against it in their pews and at their altars? How?

Just asking. This story is not going away.

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