Five thousand Bibles that were defaced by authorities will be preserved as "museum pieces" at Malaysian churches, a reminder of problems encountered by Christians in this Muslim-majority country, officials said Thursday.
The announcement is the latest twist in a dispute between Christians and the government over tens of thousands of imported Bibles seized by Malaysian customs authorities, some since early 2009. The books violate a government ban on non-Muslim texts that use the word "Allah" as a translation for God.
After Christian leaders voiced anger over the detention of the Bibles, the government agreed earlier this month to release them, but stamped many with serial numbers and government seals that stated they were meant "for Christians only."
Authorities say the use of "Allah" in Christian literature could confuse Muslims or be used to convert them.
The Bible Society of Malaysia, which imports and distributes Bibles, collected a shipment Tuesday of some 5,000 "defaced" books, said Rev. Simon Wong, the society's general secretary.
The Bibles "cannot be sold to Christian buyers" in their current state, the society said in a statement. "Instead, they will be respectfully preserved as museum pieces and as a heritage for the Christian Church in Malaysia."
Wong said they would serve as a reminder of their spat with the government.
Anger among Christians over the problem could hurt the government in much-anticipated elections next month for the state legislature in Sarawak, where Christians account for more than 40 percent of the population. Nationwide, Muslims comprise nearly two-thirds of Malaysia's 28 million people, while Christians are about 10 percent.
Malaysian Christians say the ban on their use of "Allah" is unfair because the Arabic word is a common reference for God that predates Islam. A court rejected the ban as unconstitutional in 2009, but the government has appealed the case.