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AsiaNews – The bishops of Malaysia have voiced concern about the increased Islamisation of Malaysian society. In this south-east Asian country, Islamisation dates back to the sixties. In ensuing decades, it has been used by the majority party, the UNMO (United Malays National Organization) to reinforce the economic standing and policies of the Malay ethnic group and to enhance national consensus. However it has also served the PAS (Islamic Party of Malaysia) to establish a real and proper Islamic state.

Despite the efforts of the current premier Badawi, which are oriented towards inter-faith dialogue, a good 13 states in the country have approved Sharia, the Islamic law, practically reducing minorities to the status of dhimmi – non-Muslim religious groups protected by Islam – discriminating against them in employment and freedom of worship.

A few weeks ago, the Catholic bishops of Malaysia published a document in the weekly Catholic Herald (14 August 2005), entitled: “The legal implications of conversions to Islam”. The pastors sought to put believers on their guard against apostasy, against possible conversions to Islam as means to an end without fully realizing the consequences of this action. More and more, young Catholic men and women are falling in love with Muslims and in order to get married, they accept to become Muslims. Others become Muslim for the economic advantages this will bring. The bishops warn believers of the gravity of such a choice, which has radical outcomes not only on the level of faith, but also on their legal and civil status. New converts would be subject to Sharia, making it difficult for them to go back on their decision. Although the federal constitution guarantees the individual the freedom to choose his own religion, Muslims – and especially Malay – are prohibited from doing so.

To better understand the situation and contradictions inherent in Malaysian legislation, AsiaNews caught up with Leonard Teoh, a member of the Association of Catholic Lawyers and an expert in problems linked to freedom of worship.

Dr Teoh, the most urgent theme of the bishops’ documents is that of apostasy in Islam. They fear that if neo-converts want to return to Christianity, they will face fines, flogging and imprisonment. What is your view on these Islamic laws which consider the return to one’s own faith as a “criminal offence”?

In many areas of Malaysia , if a person decides he no longer wishes to be a Muslim, his declaration must be approved by the Sharia court. It is the court which will decree whether you are a Muslim or not. Once you are Muslim and your father and mother were Muslim, you will always be a Muslim, you will live and die as one. For example, in the state of Sabah, if a Muslim declares he is no longer such, the Sharia court can detain him for months to re-educate him, after which time he may be sentenced to a year in prison if he has not repented as yet. In the state of Malakka, a six-month imprisonment term has been fixed for the same crime. Other states like Kelantan, Terengganu have promulgated similar laws which punish apostasy cases in the Islamic faith.

Are these provisions against ratifications made by the Federal Constitution regarding freedom of worship? Are any dangers faced by those who freely decide not to profess Islam any longer?

Article 11 of the Constitution states that each has the right to profess, practice and spread his own faith. So when a person declares that he is no longer a Muslim, he is no longer such, and this is a free choice. It is on this basis that we lawyers go to the Sharia court to affirm that a person is no longer Muslim and that the Islamic court no longer has any jurisdiction over him. Further, the law of the state says that Sharia must be applied only to those who profess the religion of Islam. In any case, even if punishments are not officially meted out to non-Muslims, serious problems are created in relations with Muslims. There is confusion in the law: if a Muslim decides not to profess Islam any longer, he does not know where to turn to register his decision to change religion or to leave Islam.

The federal Court, citing art.121/1A will say it does not have the competence to rule on religious matters so it will send the person to the Sharia court. This court will tell people that, according to the state law, it has no power to pass judgement on those who are not Muslims, but only partly so…[Go To Full Story]