KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 20, 2010 (AFP) - Malaysian police said Wednesday they have arrested eight people over the firebombing of a church earlier this month, the first in a spate of attacks that have escalated ethnic tensions.
The attacks on churches across predominantly Muslim Malaysia were triggered by a court ruling on December 31 that overturned a ban on non-Muslims using "Allah" as a translation for "God."
|Red paint, splashed by unidentified vandals, covers the main gate of the St. Elizabeth Catholic church in Kota Tinggi of Malaysia's Johor state on Januray 14, 2010 (AFP photo)|
Federal criminal investigation chief Bakri Zinin said police were investigating whether the eight arrested were also linked to the attacks on 10 other churches, which were pelted with Molotov cocktails, stones and paint.
"Eight people have been arrested and they are believed to be involved in the arson attack on the (Metro Tabernacle) church. They have been remanded for seven days to facilitate investigations," he told reporters.
"We will investigate whether they are also linked to other cases," he said, but added that "we believe we have solved this case".
"So please I advise the public, don't do something that will threaten racial and religious harmony," he said.
The three-storey Metro Tabernacle church in suburban Kuala Lumpur, part of the Assemblies of God movement, was set ablaze on January 8 in a firebombing that left its ground floor gutted.
Church leaders said witnesses saw four people ride up on motorcycles, smash the windows and throw things into the building.
Bakri said the first of the eight to be arrested was detained on Tuesday after seeking hospital treatment for burns on his hands and chest.
The group were all aged between 21 and 26, and included three relatives -- two siblings and their uncle. The remainders were friends of the family group. A police statement said the eight were Muslim Malays.
Religion and language are sensitive issues in multiracial Malaysia, which experienced deadly race riots in 1969.
The row over the use of "Allah" is among a string of religious disputes that have erupted in recent years, straining relations between Malays and minority ethnic Chinese and Indians who fear the country is being "Islamised."
The High Court last month ruled in favour of the Catholic Herald newspaper which has used "Allah" as a translation for "God" in its Malay-language section. The government has said the word should be used only by Muslims.
The ruling was suspended pending an appeal, after the government argued the decision could cause racial conflict.
Malaysia's population is 60 percent Muslim Malay, but also includes indigenous tribes as well as the large ethnic Chinese and Indian communities -- practising Buddhism, Christianity and Hinduism, among others.
More than half of Malaysia's Catholics are from indigenous groups, most of whom live in the Borneo island states and who mainly speak Malay.