Image: Fire gutted administrative block of a Church in Malaysia
Saeed Khan  /  AFP - Getty Images file
Malaysian forensic experts and security officials investigate the gutted administrative block of a church after an attack in Kuala Lumpur in the early hours of Jan. 8. The church was set ablaze, church officials said, amid a dispute over the use of the word "Allah" by a Catholic newspaper.
updated 1/29/2010 12:47:05 AM ET 2010-01-29T05:47:05

Malaysian prosecutors charged three Muslim men Friday in the firebombing of a church — the first suspects in a string of assaults on places of worship amid a dispute over whether non-Muslims can refer to God as "Allah."

Arson attacks, vandalism and other incidents at 11 churches, a Sikh temple, three mosques and two Muslim prayer halls in recent weeks have been a blow to decades of multiracial harmony in this Muslim-majority country.

The attacks, which started on churches, followed anger among Muslims over a Dec. 31 court verdict that allowed non-Muslims to use "Allah" as a translation for "God" in the Malay language. Many Malaysian Muslims believe the word should be exclusive to their religion, and that its use by others could confuse some Muslims and even tempt them to convert.

Three suspects pleaded innocent in a Kuala Lumpur district court Friday to starting a fire that partially gutted a Protestant church on Jan. 8, said government lawyer Anselm Charles Fernandis. It was the first and most serious of all the attacks on churches, most of which suffered only minor damage.

The men, who are in their 20s, face a maximum prison sentence of up to 20 years if convicted of "mischief by fire" with the intention of destroying a place of worship. The court did not immediately schedule a trial date.

Five others arrested with the men last week in connection to the same attack were released without charges.

The attacks on churches have abated in the past two weeks, though fears of tensions resurfaced Wednesday when severed heads of wild boars were found dumped at two mosques. Pigs are considered unclean by Muslims.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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