No joy for Malaysian Muslim convert to Catholicism

A Malaysian woman known only as "Lina Joy" is in hiding after threats from Islamic extremists who accuse her of apostasy after she renounced her Muslim faith and sought to marry her Christian fiance.

The New York Times reports that Lina Joy whose name is now a household word in majority Muslim Malaysia started proceedings five years ago in the civil courts to seek the right to marry her Christian fiancÚ and have children.

Lina Joy's problem is that if she is not recognised as Christian she can only marry a Muslim man in a Muslim ceremony and will be subject to Islamic family and inheritance laws.

Because she had renounced her Muslim faith, Joy, 42, argued, Malaysia's Islamic Shariah courts, which control matters like marriage, property and divorce, did not have jurisdiction over her.

In a series of decisions, the civil courts ruled against her. Then, last month, her lawyer, Benjamin Dawson, appeared before Malaysia's highest court, the Court of Appeals, to argue that Joy's conversion be considered a constitutional right not a religious matter for the Shariah courts. Judgment in the case is still pending.

"She's trying to live her life with someone she loves," Dawson told the Times.

For Malaysia, which considers itself a moderate, modern and Muslim country with a tolerance for its multiple religions and ethnic groups of Malays, Indians and Chinese, the case has kicked up a firestorm that goes to the very heart of who is a Malay, and what is Malaysia.

Joy's case has inflamed a conflict that has included street protests and death threats between groups who support the secular constitution and Islamic groups who argue that the Shariah courts should have supremacy in many matters.

About 60 percent of Malaysia's 26 million people are Muslims, 20 percent are Buddhists, nearly 10 percent are Christians and 6 percent are Hindus.

"Malaysia is at a crossroads," Dawson told the New York Times. "Do we go down the Islamic road, or do we maintain the secular character of the federal constitution that has been eroding in the last 10 years?"

In rulings in Joy's case, civil courts said Malays could not renounce Islam because the constitution defined Malays to be Muslims.

They also ruled that a request to change her identity card from Muslim to Christian had to be decided by the Shariah courts. There she would be considered an apostate, and if she did not repent she surely would be sentenced to several years in an Islamic rehabilitation centre.

Conversions of Muslims to Christianity are not common in Malaysia, though most converts do not seek official approval for marriage and therefore do not run into the obstacles that Joy confronted.

One 38-year-old convert, who provided only his Christian names, Paul Michael, described how he led a double life.

"Church members know us as who we are, and the outside world knows us as we were," he told the Times. He was fearful, he said, that if his conversion became public the religious authorities would come after him, and he could be sentenced to a religious rehabilitation camp.

Meanwhile, Asia News reports that pressure by Islamic extremists is intensifying daily: they are intent on preventing a positive outcome of the case that may pave the way for a "flight from Islam" by other believers.

Recently, for example, the parish where Lina Joy was baptised, Our Lady of Fatima, Brickfields in Central Kuala Lumpur, were informed about a police report against their parish.

According to the Harakah fortnightly paper dated August 16-31, a man called Taib Hisham reported the church, claiming that Joy's baptism went against Article 11 of the Constitution that says: "The law may control or restrict the propagation of any religious doctrine or belief among persons professing the religion of Islam." Taib was supported in his initiative by the youth wing of the Islamic Party of Malaysia (known as PAS) and Islamic NGOs. Article 11 also guarantees religious freedom.

Islamic conservatives fear that if the judges allow her to leave Islam, this would open the floodgates to many other requests of Muslims wanting to change their faith. So while they wait for the sentence, they are taking their "precautions".

Local sources said no effort is being spared to convince the Muslim community to take up a stand "in defence of Islam" and several blogs and websites are calling for a verdict that "spells a victory for Islam" in Malaysia.

In response, Malaysian Christian Churches have launched a prayer campaign on behalf of Lina Joy.

Malaysia's Islamic identity at issue (International Herald Tribune (24/8/06)
Church that baptised Lina Joy, convert from Islam, is reported (Asia News, 24/8/06)

Court has yet to decide on Lina Joy's appeal (Malaysia Star, 24/8/06)

25 Aug 2006