Saturday, April 15, 2006

Malaysia

2. Malaysian Court to Decide Conversion Case

www.columbian.com

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA, April 14, 2006: Malaysia's highest court has agreed to take up the question whether Muslims who renounce their faith must still answer to the country's Islamic courts. The Federal Court ruling, expected in months, will be a rare step into the highly sensitive area of conversions - and will likely have profound implications on religious freedom in this Muslim-majority country. The court's announcement on Thursday stems from the case of Lina Joy, who converted from Islam to Christianity in 1998. That same year she applied to revise her government identity card, which stated that she was Muslim. The National Registration Department refused to identify her as Christian, saying it needed permission from a court specializing in Islamic law, or Shariah. "This case should be viewed in the larger context of Islamization and the erosion of constitutional rights," Joy's lawyer, Benjamin Dawson, said Friday. Muslims, who make up 60 percent of Malaysia's 26 million people, are governed by Shariah courts on all civil and family matters. Chinese and Indian minorities are under civil court jurisdiction. But there are no clear guidelines in overlapping cases like Joy's. A similar dilemma arose last year, when a Hindu soldier converted to Islam without telling his family. When he died, Islamic authorities claimed his body for burial, mandated under Islam. A court rejected his widow's plea that she get the body for cremation, required under Hinduism. Dawson said Malaysia's constitution does not say a person needs Shariah court approval to convert out of Islam. If the Shariah court had that right, it would never allow a Muslim to convert because it does not "believe that anyone can change from Islam," he said. The case has had serious repercussions for Joy, 42. She wants to marry a non-Muslim, but cannot because the civil registry only marries non-Muslims. "What happens if she steps into a church, for example? Or (gets) caught eating during the (Islamic) fasting month?" he said. Shariah bars Muslims from both.

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