KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysia's prime minister plans to meet Pope Benedict XVI this month as part of efforts to establish diplomatic ties with the Vatican, a government official said Monday.
It would be only the second meeting between a leader of Muslim-majority Malaysia and the pope. Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad met Pope John Paul II at the Vatican in 2002 for talks focusing on Christian-Muslim relations and the Middle East.
The planned meeting comes following tensions between Malaysia's Muslims and religious minorities in recent years over complaints of religious discrimination. The Roman Catholic Church's newspaper in Malaysia has been embroiled in a protracted legal battle against a government ban on the use of "Allah" as a Malay-language translation for God.
A representative of Prime Minister Najib Razak said a meeting with Benedict is scheduled for shortly after July 15, when Najib wraps up a visit to London. The exact location of the talks has not been determined.
Establishing diplomatic links is expected to be among the subjects discussed, the official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to make public statements.
Malaysia is one of about 16 countries — including China, Afghanistan, Myanmar, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Vietnam — that currently have no diplomatic relations with the Holy See. However, the Vatican has an "Apostolic Delegate" who serves as its liaison with Malaysia.
Roman Catholics and other Christians comprise nearly 10 percent of Malaysia's 28 million people. Nearly two-thirds of the population are ethnic Malay Muslims, while other minorities include ethnic Chinese and Indian Buddhists and Hindus.
It was not clear if Najib would speak to the pope about Malaysia's court tussle over the use of "Allah." A December 2009 court verdict granted non-Muslims the right to use the word, but anger among some Muslims over the ruling sparked an unprecedented string of arson attacks and vandalism that mostly targeted churches in January 2010.
Some Muslims insist that using "Allah" in Christian literature might confuse Muslims and tempt them to convert. The government has appealed the court verdict.
The Malaysian Insider news website said Najib will be accompanied at his meeting by Malaysian Catholic officials headed by the Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur, Murphy Pakiam. Pakiam's representatives could not immediately be contacted.