updated 1/8/2010 2:45:12 AM ET 2010-01-08T07:45:12

Three Malaysian Christian churches were attacked with firebombs Friday, causing extensive damage to one and sharply escalating religious tensions in the country over the use of the word "Allah" by non-Muslim minorities.

Prime Minister Najib Razak condemned the attacks by unidentified assailants, who struck before dawn in different suburbs of Kuala Lumpur. He said the government "will take whatever steps it can to prevent such acts."

Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said the country's leaders were very concerned about the situation. "We don't want this to spread out into something else ... I am not only assuring the minorities, I am assuring all Malaysians — anybody who is in Malaysia — that they are safe," he told reporters.

Malaysia is often held up as a model for other Islamic countries because of its economic development, a progressive society and the generally peaceful coexistence of its different races. The Malay Muslim majority comprise 60 percent of the country's 28 million people while the rest are mostly ethnic Chinese and Indians. They follow Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and other faiths.

The Allah controversy, however, has the potential to shatter that carefully nurtured harmony, drive a deep racial wedge and scare away sorely needed foreign investment as the country struggles to emerge from the global financial crisis.

In the first attack, the ground-level office of the three-story Metro Tabernacle Church was destroyed in a blaze set off by a firebomb thrown by attackers on motorcycles soon after midnight, police said. The worship areas on the upper two floors were undamaged and there were no injuries.

Two other churches were attacked hours later, with one sustaining minor damage while the other was not damaged.

‘Allah’ controversy
Many Muslims have expressed outrage since a Dec. 31 Kuala Lumpur High Court verdict struck down a ban on non-Muslims using "Allah" in their literature. The government has appealed the verdict.

The High Court was ruling on a petition by Malaysia's Roman Catholic Church, whose main publication, the Herald, uses the word Allah in its Malay-language edition that is read almost exclusively by indigenous Christian tribes in the remote state of Sabah and Sarawak.

The tribespeople speak only Malay, and have always referred to God as Allah, an Arabic word that predates Islam. It is used not only by Muslims but also by Christians in Muslim-majority countries such as Egypt, Syria and Indonesia.

But the Malaysian government says "Allah" is exclusive to Islam and its use by others would mislead Muslims and tempt them to convert to Christianity.

Many Muslims saw the court verdict as an attack on their religion. Hateful comments and threats against Christians were posted widely on the Internet, but this is the first time the controversy turned destructive.

Kuala Lumpur police Chief Mohamad Sabtu Osman told The Associated Press that a witness saw four people on two motorcycles breaking the glass front of the Metro Tabernacle church and throwing an incendiary object inside before fleeing.

He said police found a wrench, an empty gasoline can and two scorched motorcycle helmets at the scene.

‘Illegal’ protest
Hishammuddin, the home minister, warned Muslim groups against going ahead with a planned protest after Friday prayers, saying they would be punished if they came out of mosques to demonstrate.

"No permit has been given (for the protest), so it is illegal," said national police Chief Musa Hassan. "Don't do things that will affect the security of the country."

The backlash against the verdict has reinforced complaints by minorities that they face institutional discrimination. They say it is almost impossible to get permission to build new churches and temples. Some Hindu temples have been demolished in the past. Court verdicts in religious disputes usually favor Muslims.

On Thursday, the Malaysian judiciary's Web site was hacked and defaced with an apparent threat to Christians, The Star newspaper reported. The site, however, appeared to be normal on Friday.

The Star said the hacker, using the alias "Brainwash," defaced the site with a banner saying: "Mess with the best, die like the rest" and "Allah only restricted to Muslim only."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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