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Convent school, fifth church attacked in Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – Arsonists in Malaysia struck at a convent school and a fifth church on Sunday amid rising tensions between majority Muslims and Christians over the use of the word “Allah” to describe the Christian God.

Police in the sleepy city of Taiping, around 300 km (185 miles) from the capital Kuala Lumpur, said a petrol bomb had been thrown at the guard house of a Catholic convent school but had failed to go off.

They also said they had found several broken bottles including paint thinners outside one of the country’s oldest Anglican churches, All Saints, Taiping, and said one of the building’s walls had been blackened.

The unprecedented attacks risk dividing the nation of 28 million people that has significant religious minorities, and could also complicate Prime Minister Najib Razak’s plan to win back support from the non-Muslims before elections due by 2013.

The issue could pose a longer-term risk of political instability for Malaysia, which has been trailing Indonesia and Thailand for foreign investment and where investors have been frightened off by the prospect of an end to the predictable rule of the coalition that has governed for 52 years.

The row, over a court ruling that allowed a Catholic newspaper to use “Allah” in its Malay-language editions, prompted Muslims to protest at mosques on Friday and sparked arson attacks on four churches that saw one Pentecostalist church gutted.

On Saturday, Najib visited the badly damaged Pentecostalist church and offered a grant of half a million ringgit ($148,100) to help it rebuild.

Government promises to provide police to protect churches were thrown into doubt after Malaysia’s top police officer said on Sunday he did not have the manpower to do so and urged the churches to step up security themselves.

“We are alarmed with the escalation of violence and urge the authorities to take this seriously,” Reverend Hermen Shastri, secretary-general to the Council of Churches Malaysia, told Reuters.

Malaysia is mainly Muslim and Malay but there are substantial ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities who mainly practice Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity.

It was these minorities handed the government its biggest ever losses in 2008 state and national elections in part due to feelings of religious marginalization and growing disillusionment with corruption.

The Catholic Herald says that it needs to use to word “Allah” to describe the Christian God in order to serve Malay-speaking Christians in Borneo. Christians account for 9.1 percent of the population.

Some Malaysian Muslims say that the paper wants to use to word to confuse and convert Muslims and by midday Sunday 178,392 people has signed up for a Facebook group that opposes Christians using “Allah” (here).

(Reporting by Niluksi Koswanage; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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