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Religious Laws Oppress Christian Converts in Malaysia

Lina Joy fights ID ruling as converts face legal restrictions, ‘rehabilitation’ classes.

by Jasmine Kay

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, April 26 (Compass Direct) –The Federal Court on April 13 granted permission to Lina Joy, a Malaysian Muslim convert to Christianity, to appeal the government’s refusal to remove her Muslim status from her identity card.

A three-member panel of judges of the nation’s highest court ruled that, “there were novel issues to be argued in the case and the matter was of public interest.”

The ground-breaking decision came after lower courts – the High Court and the Court of Appeal – repeatedly dismissed her application. Besides religious rights for Joy, at issue is whether Islamic courts have the sole right to handle cases of Muslims who leave their religion.

Joy, previously known as Azlina binti Jailani, became a Christian in 1990 and was baptized in 1998.

Since 1997, Joy has submitted multiple applications to the National Registration Department (NRD) to change her name to reflect her new-found faith. Her application for a name change was approved on October 22, 1999, and she was issued a new identity card the following month.

Her new identity card, however, stated that she was a Muslim according to a new regulation that came into force on October 1, 1999 requiring all Muslims to be declared as such on their identity cards.

The NRD refused to change her religious status and insisted that Joy obtain an order from the Islamic law (sharia) court stating that she had become an apostate.

“People who say they are not Muslims or no longer Muslims generally do not wish to get their ‘exit certificates’ from the sharia court,” said Lee Min Choon, chairman of the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship’s Religious Liberty Commission.

The sharia court has jurisdiction over Muslims only. Submitting to the sharia court “will undermine or will be inconsistent with the legal stand which [these converts] take,” he explained.

Accounting for 58 percent of Malaysia ’s population, Muslims are governed by sharia courts on civil and family matters. Christians make up just slightly more than 9 percent of the population, according to Operation World.

According to Malaysian lawyers, the sharia court has never granted permission for a Malaysian Muslim to convert out of Islam. In the case earlier this year of Nyonya Tahir – who was born a Muslim but raised as a Buddhist – the sharia court merely acknowledged that she was a non-Muslim at the time of her death on January 19.

Conversion out of Islam (“apostasy”) is either forbidden or regarded as a criminal offense under most state Islamic laws. In Malaysia, apostates may be fined, detained and imprisoned.

Leaving Islam poses many difficulties for converts under Malaysia’s dual legal system – where civil law applies to all, but a separate set of laws governs Muslims under certain circumstances.

For example, with a Muslim ID card Joy can only marry a Muslim, and any children would also be regarded as Muslims under the law. In the affidavit supporting her right to appeal to the Federal Court, Joy said she is “at present not able to contract a marriage under the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act 1976.” This Act applies to non-Muslims only.

Converts out of Islam automatically lose custody of their children to their Muslim spouses.

Further difficulties arise in the event of death. Converts out of Islam who are officially regarded as Muslims are given Muslim burials and their property distributed according to Islamic law. Even if they leave a will, it can only apply to one third of their property.

Secret Believers

Given the difficulties in converting out of Islam, many Muslim-background converts to Christianity have remained secret believers.

They are pressured to perform religious duties such as attending Friday prayers at the mosque and fasting during the Muslim month of Ramadan. If they are found to violate any of the Islamic laws, they can be fined, whipped, detained or imprisoned.

“One Muslim-background believer was asked to leave the company of his employment when they suspected he was no longer a Muslim,” said a source who declined to be named.

Another Muslim-background believer was stripped of her prefect (leadership) position in school when teachers discovered that she had become a Christian.

Others have been subjected to physical beatings.

“Often times, it is the extended family and the immediate Muslim community who are the first to persecute them,” the same source said. “Once they sense that these people are no longer Muslims, they alert the religious authorities.”

The religious authorities may call the converts for interrogation and subject them to religious classes attempting to “bring them back to the faith.” These classes can run weeks and months.

In a few instances, believers have been detained in Islamic Rehabilitation Centers. Several state Islamic laws allow such detention for up to three years for those who attempt to leave Islam.

In a highly publicized case in 1998, Nor Aishah Bokhari was kidnapped by policemen from the Dang Wangi police station in Kuala Lumpur and held captive in a relative’s house when she attempted to leave Islam to marry her Roman Catholic boyfriend. The officer-in-charge of that police station happened to be her uncle.

“The foremost struggle for such believers has to do with the question of identity. Outwardly, they have to keep up appearances as Muslims, but inwardly, they are Christians,” summed up the anonymous source. It is an issue that affects every aspect of their daily life.

“They need wisdom to know what to do and peace that they are doing the right thing.”