29 May, 2007

Malaysia faces key ruling on religious freedom

Tomorrow, Malaysia's Federal Court, the country's highest tribunal, will be announcing a decision that will be crucial in determining the role of Islamic law in the country.

Multi-racial Malaysia faces a milestone legal verdict Wednesday, which lawyers and rights groups say will determine if Muslims can renounce their faith.

"Our country is at a crossroad. Are we evolving into an Islamic state or are we going to maintain the secular character of the constitution?"

The case, involving a woman who converted from Islam to Christianity, goes to the heart of a debate on whether civil courts should take precedence over tribunals based on Islamic Sharia law.

It comes at a time of heightened religious tensions in moderate Malaysia, and would address an issue - renunciation of the faith - that is one of the gravest sins in Islam.

The Federal Court will rule on an appeal by Lina Joy, who for a decade has been battling the government to have her decision to convert to Christianity officially recognized.

"Although it is not freedom of religion per se, the decision will determine if she can convert out of Islam without going to the Sharia court," said the vice-president of Malaysia's Bar Council, Ragunath Kesavan.

"Our position has always been that she should be allowed to do so, in respect to the constitution," Ragunath said.

Islam is Malaysia's official religion. More than 60 percent of the nation's 27 million people are Muslim Malays.

But while the constitution defines the ethnic majority Malays as Muslims it also guarantees freedom of religion, and the minority Chinese and Indians are mostly Buddhists, Hindus, or Christians.

Born an ethnic Malay Muslim, and called Azlina Jailani, Joy was introduced to Christianity in 1990.

It has left her fighting authorities, first for her new name to be put on her identity card, then to have her former religion removed.

Joy keeps a low profile, fearing retaliation, and cannot legally marry her Christian partner because the law requires non-Muslims to convert to Islam if they want to marry someone of that faith.

"Malaysians mostly want to know whether they can convert out of Islam, and if so what is the procedure. This verdict will clarify that," said her lawyer, Benjamin Dawson.

The appeal centers on whether Joy must go to a Sharia court to have her renunciation recognized before authorities delete the word 'Islam' from her identity card.

Malaysia's civil courts operate parallel to Sharia courts for Muslims in areas of family law including divorce, child custody, and inheritance.

But the question of which takes precedence is unclear in cases that involve both Muslims and non-Muslims, who have little say in Sharia courts.

Lower courts have so far rebuffed Joy's efforts, ruling that only Islamic Sharia courts can recognize her conversion - but the latter are unwilling to approve apostasy.

"The country has to be ruled by the constitution but we seem to have lost it," Dawson said. "In the growing prominence of the Sharia court, things seem to have gone into a grey area with competing claims to jurisdiction," he said.

"Our civil courts seem to think that conversion is a religious matter and not constitutional, which I think is wrong."

In recent weeks Malaysia has seen a string of cases in which Muslims and non-Muslim spouses have been forced apart by Islamic religious officials.

In another example last year, an ethnic Indian mountaineer was buried as a Muslim despite protests by his Hindu wife, who insisted that he never converted.

Ivy Josiah of the Women's Aid Organization, part of a coalition of groups monitoring Joy's case, said that Wednesday's decision could affect a woman's right to choose her life partner.

"When you take all the legalities away, here is someone who wants to get married, have children, and have her own set of beliefs," Josiah said.

Some Muslims have denounced Joy's legal challenge as a tactic to undermine Islam's status in the country, but Josiah said that misses the point.

"Certain groups fear that with Lina Joy leaving, it will open the so-called 'floodgates' of people wanting to renounce Islam," she said. "Let her be who she wants to be. It is between her and God. That is the spirit of the constitution, to have choices for our beliefs."

- Middle East Times

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