Malaysian court refuses to recognise convert

In a split decision, the Malaysian Federal Court has ruled that recognising the conversion of a former Muslim known as Lina Joy, who was baptised a Catholic in 1998, is beyond its jurisdiction and remains the province of the Shariah courts.

Malaysian chief justice, Ahmad Fairuz Abdul Halim, who read out his majority opinion to a packed but respectfully hushed courtroom, said the government agency responsible for identity cards had acted reasonably when it refused to change Joy's religious status, the International Herald Tribune reports.

"She cannot at her own whim simply enter or leave her religion," Justice Ahmad said. "She must follow rules."

"The civil courts cannot interfere," he concluded.

In denying Ms Joy's right to change religion, the court "confirmed the National Registration Department's right to insist on a certificate from the Sharia Court that she has apostatised, prior to registering her conversion in the identity card", AsiaNews says.

Muslims, who make up about 60 per cent of Malaysia's population, have co-existed with Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and Sikhs for decades in this country, considered one of the world's most progressive and modern Muslim democracies.

But the ruling here underlined the increasing separateness of Muslims from people of other religions and reinforced the idea, widely held in many Muslim countries, that Islamic law should have primacy over secular laws in certain aspects of their lives, the Herald says.

The Federal Court was divided 2-1 in its decision, with the only non-Muslim judge, Richard Malanjum, dissenting forcefully and arguing that the Constitution must remain the supreme law of the land. The split on the court mirrored the discord in Malaysian society, where ethnic and religious tensions have increased in recent years.

Malanjum said that Joy's "fundamental constitutional right of freedom of religion" had been violated.

The ruling exhausted the last appeal of Lina Joy, who, after being baptised a Roman Catholic in May 1998, wanted to remove the word "Islam" from her identity card in order to marry her Catholic fiance.

Muslims in Malaysia are subject to separate laws on inheritance and marriage - they must marry within the faith - and are not allowed to have premarital relationships or drink alcohol, among other rules. Because separate laws apply to them, Muslims must list their religion on their identity cards.

Joy, who lost her job as a saleswoman last year because of the controversy and whose family has reportedly been harassed, is seeking political asylum in Australia, according to one of her advisers, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak for her.

Outside the courthouse, located in the heart of Malaysia's gleaming administrative capital, jubilant members of an Islamic youth organisation cheered the decision, shouting "Allah Akbar," or "God is great."

But representatives of other religious communities said they were dismayed.

"Something needs to be done," said Leonard Teoh Hooi Leong, a lawyer representing the Malaysia Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Sikhism. "People like Lina Joy should not be trapped in a legal cage, not being able to come out to practice their true conscious and religion."

Malaysian court refuses to recognize Muslim's conversion to Christianity (International Herald Tribune, 31/5/07)
Civil courts abdicate in favour of Sharia courts at the expense of Malaysia's Christians (AsiaNews, 30/5/07)
Malaysian Christian convert loses battle (Sydney Morning Herald, 31/5/07)
Kuala Lumpur refuses to recognise Lina Joy's conversion to Christianity (AsiaNews, 30/5/07)
Life as a secret Christian convert (BBC News, 30/5/07)

LINKS (not necessarily endorsed by Church Resources)
Status of religious freedom in Malaysia (Wikipedia)

No joy for Malaysian Muslim convert to Catholicism (CathNews, 25/8/06)

31 May 2007