Kevin Ang is cautious these days. He glances around, taking a look to the left down the long row of stores, then to the right toward the square, to check that no one is nearby. Only then does the church caretaker dig out his key, unlock the gate, and enter the Metro Tabernacle Church in a suburb of Kuala Lumpur.
The draft of air stirs charred Bible pages. The walls are sooty and the building smells of scorched plastic. Metro Tabernacle Church was the first of 11 churches set on fire by angry Muslims -- all because of one word. "Allah," Kevin Ang whispers.
It began with a question -- should Christians here, like Muslims, be allowed to call their god "Allah," since they don't have any other word or language at their disposal? The Muslims claim Allah for themselves, both the word and the god, and fear that if Christians are allowed to use the same word for their own god, it could lead pious Muslims astray.
For three years there was a ban in place and the government confiscated Bibles that mentioned "Allah." Then on Dec. 31 last year, Malaysia's highest court reached a decision: The Christian God could also be called Allah.
Imams protested and disgruntled citizens threw Molotov cocktails at churches. Then, on top of everything, Prime Minister Najib Razak stated that he couldn't stop people who might protest against specific developments in the country -- and some took that as an invitation to violent action. First churches burned, then the other side retaliated with pigs' heads placed in front of two mosques. Sixty percent of Malaysians are Muslims and 9 percent Christians, with the rest made up by Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs. They managed to live together well, until now.
It's a battle over a single word, but it's also about much more than that. The conflict has to do with the question of what rights the Christian minority in Malaysia is entitled to. Even more than that, it's a question of politics. The ruling United Malays National Organization is losing supporters to Islamist hardliners -- and wants to win them back with religious policies.
Those policies are receiving a receptive welcome. Some of Malaysia's states interpret Sharia, the Islamic system of law and order, particularly strictly. The once liberal country is on the way to giving up freedom of religion -- and what constitutes order is being defined ever more rigidly. If a Muslim woman drinks beer, she can be punished with six cane strokes. Some regions similarly forbid such things as brightly colored lipstick, thick make-up, or shoes with clattering high heels.
Not only in Malaysia, but in many countries through the Muslim world, religion has gained influence over governmental policy in the last two decades. The militant Islamist group Hamas controls the Gaza Strip, while Islamist militias are fighting the governments of Nigeria and the Philippines. Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen have fallen to a large extent into the hands of Islamists. And where Islamists are not yet in power, secular governing parties are trying to outstrip the more religious groups in a rush to the right.
This can be seen in Egypt, Algeria, Sudan, Indonesia to some extent, and also Malaysia. Even though this Islamization often has more to do with politics than with religion, and even though it doesn't necessarily lead to the persecution of Christians, it can still be said that where Islam gains importance, freedoms for members of other faiths shrink.