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Islamic Leaders in Malaysia Drop Claim to Ex-Muslim’s Body

Dead man’s family buries him with Christian rites nine days after his death.

by Jasmine Kay

12/8/06 Malaysia (Compass Direct News) The 71-year-old Rayappan (his surname, first in order for names in Malaysia ) died of complications from diabetes on November 29 after spending a month at Kuala Lumpur Hospital .

On November 30, when Rayappan’s family tried to claim his body for burial, officers from the Selangor Islamic Affairs Department (JAIS) stepped in. The Islamic authorities claimed that Rayappan was a Muslim and produced a document issued by JAIS dated June 2005 to substantiate their claim.

Rayappan’s family, however, said he had returned to Christianity in 1999 and was a Christian at the point of his death. The National Registration Department (NRD) issued him a new identity card in 2000 that showed him as Christian.

The JAIS document, by contrast, is issued to those who convert to Islam and has less authority than an identity card – for example, it cannot be used to obtain a bank loan or to register for school. Observers have questioned why this document was issued 15 years after Rayappan’s conversion to Islam.

Calling Out to Jesus

Born into a Catholic family, Rayappan married Lourdes Mary Maria Soosay, a fellow Catholic, on January 15, 1959. Together they had six children. Ryappan later left the family, though he did not divorce his wife.

On January 20, 1990, Rayappan converted to Islam to marry a Muslim woman as his second wife and adopted the name Muhamad Rayappan Abdullah. Nine years later, however, Rayappan returned to live with Soosay and converted back to Christianity. He confirmed his profession of Christian faith by way of a statutory declaration before a Commissioner of Oaths on May 10, 1999.

To effect these changes, Rayappan submitted documents prepared by a lawyer and executed by the Commissioner of Oaths to the National Registration Department (NRD). The NRD accepted his declaration, issuing him with a new identity card in 2000 that showed his Christian name and had the word “Christian” printed below it.

Rayappan’s daughter, Jeya Mary, told The Sun, “He was calling out the name Jesus on his death bed.” She claimed her father never observed the Muslim way of life. He went to church and had received Holy Communion from a priest days before his death.

The Rev. Father Patrick Boudville, parish priest at Good Shepherd Church in Setapak, where Rayappan was a parishioner, confirmed that Rayappan was a baptized and practicing Catholic.

Legal Tussle

The legal battle over Rayappan’s body began on December 1, when the Shah Alam Sharia High Court issued an order to release the body to the Selangor Islamic Affairs Council (MAIS) for Muslim burial, subject to the council obtaining an endorsement from the Federal Territory Sharia High Court.

The court order was suspended on Monday (December 4). On that day, the Sharia High Court subpoenaed three of Rayappan’s daughters to appear and provide evidence on their father’s religious status. All three sisters refused to attend the court hearing, arguing that as non-Muslims the sharia (Islamic law) court had no jurisdiction over them.

Sharia High Court Judge Abu Zaky Mohammad then referred the case to the Sharia Appeal Court for hearing on December 12.

Meanwhile, Rayappan’s family lodged a civil suit against the Kuala Lumpur Hospital and the Malaysian government. The suit sought a declaration that Rayappan was a Christian at the point of his death and asked for the release of his body to his family. The case was fixed for hearing at the civil high court on December 11.

Yesterday (December 7), however, MAIS dropped its claim to Rayappan’s body after consultation with JAIS and other legal advisers. MAIS Chairman Datuk Mohamed Adzib Mohd Isa told the Bernama news agency that although information gathered earlier had indicated that Rayappan was a Muslim, more recent evidence for his Christian beliefs was overwhelming.

Lawyer A. Sivanesan, who is representing Rayappan’s family, then sent a letter to the Kuala Lumpur Hospital asking for the release of Rayappan’s body. Rayappan was expected to be buried today (December 8) according to Christian rites.

Freedom of Religion at Stake

The case highlights the problems inherent in Malaysia’s dual-legal system, where civil laws apply in most cases, but Islamic or sharia law applies to Muslims in any personal, religious or family matters.

Lawyer Benjamin Dawson, representing Lina Joy, another convert from Islam, told The Sun that this was “first and foremost a constitutional issue.”

Bishop Paul Tan Chee Ing, chairman of the Christian Federation of Malaysia (CFM), said the attempt to obstruct Rayappan’s Christian burial contravened Article 11 of the Federal Constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion.

Earlier this week, opposition leader Lim Kit Siang urged the cabinet to consider amending Article 121(1A) of the Federal Constitution to prevent injustices such as that of the Rayappan case from recurring.

Article 121(1A) states that the high courts and the lower tribunals shall have no jurisdiction over any matter within the jurisdiction of the sharia courts.

Cabinet members discussed the case on Wednesday (December 6), asking the attorney-general to determine Rayappan’s religious status at death in order to resolve the matter.

Other Cases

Several other cases have highlighted the problems of Malaysia ’s dual legal system in recent months.

The family of Moorthy Maniam also fought Islamic authorities for the right to his body when he died on December 20, 2005. Islamic authorities claimed that Maniam was a Muslim even though his identity card did not show it and he was publicly seen practicing Hinduism. The civil high court dismissed the suit filed by Moorthy’s widow, saying it had no jurisdiction over decisions made by the sharia court. Moorthy was given a Muslim burial.

In the case of Nyonya Tahir, who died on January 19, the Seremban Sharia Court acknowledged that she was a non-Muslim at the time of her death and allowed her family to bury her as one, even though her identity card explicitly stated she was a Muslim.

In Rayappan’s case, the NRD upheld his constitutional right to freedom of religion and made the change to his identity card, although this change was subsequently challenged upon his death by the Islamic religious authorities.

By contrast, in the case of Lina Joy, a convert to Christianity, the NRD has consistently refused to acknowledge the change in her religious status unless she obtains an “exit certificate” from the sharia court.

Joy is still waiting for a final decision on her case from the federal court. (See Compass Direct, “Malaysian Convert Receives Death Threats, Goes Into Hiding,” August 25.)

CFM chairman Bishop Tan today urged the government to find a solution to prevent future religious tussles over “a deceased person whose religious status was in question.”

“There must be a transparent mechanism to resolve such issues,” Bishop Tan told local reporters.