A muslim protester reads a Qur'an during a demonstration against a Malaysian Catholic newspaper using the word "Allah" at the court of appeal in Putrajaya, outside Kuala Lumpur on October 14, 2013. Picture: MOHD RASFAN

Kuala Lumpur -

Authorities in Muslim-majority Malaysia are investigating a Catholic priest for sedition in an escalating religious row over the use of the word “Allah”, an official said on Thursday.

A court in October barred the Malaysian Catholic newspaper Herald from using “Allah” to refer to the Christian God in its Malay-language edition.

The verdict was welcomed by Muslim conservatives but raised concerns among Christians, a minority in the multi-faith country who say the practice of their religion is increasingly under threat.

On Tuesday police questioned Herald editor Father Lawrence Andrew for sedition after he told news portal The Malaysian Insider last month that churches would continue to use “Allah” in their Malay-language services.

Majid Hamzah, head of the prosecution division in the Attorney General's Chambers, Thursday confirmed that authorities were investigating the editor for sedition.

He could not say whether Andrew would face charges.

Andrew's lawyer Francis Pereira told AFP his client's comments were “clearly not in any way seditious”.

“I don't see any reason why he should be investigated for sedition,” Pereira said.

The dispute over the use of “Allah” by non-Muslims first erupted in 2007 when the Home Ministry threatened to revoke the Herald's publishing permit for using the word.

Authorities said using “Allah” in non-Muslim literature could confuse Muslims and entice them to convert.

The church argues “Allah” has been used for over a century in the Malay language to refer to “God” outside of Islam.

The ban's initial removal by a lower court in late 2009 triggered a series of attacks with Molotov cocktails, rocks and paint on churches and other places of worship, sparking fears of wider religious conflict.

But a higher court overturned that ruling in October, reinstating the ban.

Last week, Islamic authorities seized more than 300 Malay-language Bibles using the word “Allah” from the Bible Society of Malaysia and questioned two of its officers.

Rights groups and some opposition leaders have condemned the seizure.

Malaysia has largely avoided overt religious conflict in recent decades, but tensions have slowly risen along with what many see as increasing Islamisation of the country. - Sapa-AFP