Malaysia Top Court Doesn’t Honour Muslim’s Conversion

Malaysia’s highest court on Wednesday refused to recognize the conversion of a Muslim-born woman to Christianity, ruling that the matter was beyond the jurisdiction of the country’s civil courts and should be handled by religious authorities.

The Federal Court was divided 2 to 1, with the only non-Muslim judge, Richard Malanjum, dissenting forcefully and arguing that the Constitution must remain the supreme law of the land.

Muslims, who make up about 60 percent of Malaysia’s population of nearly 25 million, have coexisted with Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and Sikhs for decades in one of the world’s most progressive and modern Muslim democracies. But the ruling underlined the increasing separation of Muslims from others and reinforced the notion that Islamic law should have primacy over secular laws in certain aspects of Muslims’ lives.

The ruling exhausted the last appeal of Lina Joy, who after being baptized a Roman Catholic in May 1998 wanted to remove the word Islam from her identity card to marry her Catholic fiancé. Muslims in Malaysia are already subject to separate laws on inheritance and marriage and must marry within the faith.

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

Ms. Joy’s lawyer, Benjamin Dawson, was not available after the trial to comment on the verdict or asylum application, and Ms. Joy was not in the courtroom on Wednesday.

Malaysia’s chief justice, Ahmad Fairuz Abdul Halim, said in his majority opinion that the agency responsible for identity cards had acted reasonably when it refused to change Ms. Joy’s religious status. “She cannot at her own whim simply enter or leave her religion,” he said. “She must follow rules.”

Malaysia’s Constitution is in some ways contradictory, analysts say. It both defends freedom of religion and declares Islam the official religion. The abandonment of Islam, or apostasy, is strongly opposed by many Muslims and in some Malaysian states is punishable by fines and imprisonment. To change her religion officially, Chief Justice Ahmad said, Ms. Joy must offer proof from a special Muslim court that she has abandoned Islam.

Justice Malanjum said in his dissent that Ms. Joy’s “fundamental constitutional right of freedom of religion” had been violated.

Outside the courthouse here members of an Islamic youth organization cheered the decision.

But representatives of other religious groups were dismayed.

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

In practice, Mr. Teoh said, Ms. Joy, who was born Azlina Jailani, will have a very difficult time getting Islamic authorities to allow her to leave Islam. No one in recent years has done it in the federal territory of Kuala Lumpur, where Ms. Joy is registered, he said.

Ms. Joy’s case reflects the larger debate across the globe about the place of traditional Islamic beliefs in modern, multicultural democracies and highlights differences of opinion on the age-old question of the separation of religion and state.

Recent News

10 years 7 weeks ago
10 years 8 weeks ago