18 January, 2008

Malaysia - ends row over dead woman's faith after Islamic officials retract claim over body

Malaysian court Friday ordered a woman's body to be released for a Christian funeral after Islamic authorities retracted their claim that she had converted to Islam.

The case of Wong Sau Lan, who died Dec. 30 at the age of 53, marks a small victory for Malaysia's minorities after a series of interfaith disputes, which sowed fears that religious rights of non-Muslims were under threat.

Wong's husband, Ngiam Tee Kong, will now cremate the body in a Christian funeral early next week, said his lawyer, Karpal Singh.

He said the Kuala Lumpur High Court ordered the hospital, where Wong's body was kept while the dispute was being resolved in court, to release the body to her husband.

The court order was based on a Jan. 16 letter by Islamic authorities sent to Karpal that said Wong's conversion to Islam on Dec. 24 was not carried out properly, and therefore was not valid, Karpal said.

"They've been negligent in saying earlier that she was converted lawfully. This is a serious matter," Karpal told The Associated Press. "They should have investigated first."

Karpal said Ngiam, who has maintained his wife was a Christian at her death, was suing the hospital where Wong died and the Islamic department for damages. The amount has not yet been specified, he said.

It was not clear why the Islamic authorities first claimed Wong's body, alleging she had converted lawfully, but then retracted their claims. Relevant authorities could not immediately be reached.

A national debate over religious conversions erupted in late 2005, when a court ordered Maniam Moorthy, a member of Malaysia's Mount Everest expedition, to be buried as a Muslim despite objections from his Hindu wife.

In other cases since then, Malaysia's secular courts have denied at least two women the right to convert out of Islam, passing the matter to the country's separate Shariah courts, which are unlikely to grant conversion.

Some 40 percent of Malaysians are Buddhists, Hindus or Christians from ethnic Chinese and Indian communities. The rest are Muslim Malays.
(From IHT)

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