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Lina Joy: Crucial test on religious freedom

Elisia Yeo

ICC Note: Here is some more information about the Lina Joy case. Unfortunately the verdict is still pending, therefore we must continue to keep praying that it will not fall under Sharia law.

1/17/07 Malaysia For full story go to (Rentakini) The nation’s highest court is to rule on an appeal by Lina Joy, a convert from Islam to Christianity who for a decade has been locked in a battle with the government to have her decision legally recognised.

The appeal brings to a head passionate arguments about whether Muslims can renounce Islam at will and, ultimately, whether Malaysia is a secular country or is morphing into a conservative Islamic state under religious Sharia law.

“Our country is at a crossroads pending the outcome of this landmark case,” Joy’s counsel, Benjamin Dawson, told AFP.

“This decision is pivotal to the direction the country will take.”

The 42-year-old woman at the centre of the case is a member of Malaysia ‘s majority ethnic Malay community, who make up 60 percent of the population of more than 26 million.

Born a Muslim and called Azlina Jailani, she says her introduction to Christianity in 1990 changed her life for the better.

But it has left her fighting the authorities since 1997, first for her new name to be put on her identity card, then to have her former religion removed.

“Although I have been brought up as a Muslim, I have, from the beginning, not believed in the practices and teachings of Islam,” Joy, who rarely speaks to the media, said in a 2000 affidavit to a high court.

“I find more peace in my spirit and soul after having become a Christian.

“As such, I am of the opinion that I would be unfaithful, untrue and unfair to myself and to others should I carry on projecting myself as Muslim.”

Resolve a paradox

Her appeal to the federal court centres on whether she must go to a Sharia court to have her renunciation recognised before authorities strike the word “Islam” off her identity card.

The court’s ruling is seen as pivotal because it could resolve a paradox in the constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion but defines Malays as Muslims.

Malaysia ‘s civil courts operate parallel to Sharia courts for Muslims in areas of personal law such as divorce, child custody and inheritance.

The question of which takes precedence, however, is increasingly murky in cases that involve both Muslims and non-Muslims, who have little say in Sharia courts.

Lower courts have so far rebuffed Joy’s efforts, ruling that only Islamic courts can recognise her conversion.

However, the Islamic courts are loath to approve apostasy – renouncing Islam, which some Muslim scholars say is punishable by death – setting up a Catch-22 situation for would-be converts.

Several high-profile cases have underlined the strain. Last year, an ethnic Indian mountaineering hero was buried as a Muslim despite the protests of his Hindu wife, who insisted he never converted.

Worsening relationship

Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who admits race relations have hit a “fragile” point, has described the worsening relationship between the Muslim Malays and the minority ethnic Chinese and Indian communities as a “disease”.

A year ago, all 10 non-Muslim cabinet members sent a petition to the prime minister asking him to safeguard the rights of religious minorities, but were reprimanded by Abdullah and forced to retract it.

Meanwhile, Joy’s battle continues. She is forced to keep a low profile for fear of retaliation from Muslim groups, and although she is now engaged to a Christian man, she cannot marry him.

Under Malaysian law, non-Muslims must convert to Islam if they want to marry a Muslim.

Ivy Josiah of the Women’s Aid Organisation, part of a coalition of groups watching over Joy’s case, said it was about a woman’s right to live her life freely.

“At a very personal level, here is a woman who’s been for the past 16 years saying ‘I’m a Christian. I want to get married, I want to have children’ and no one is hearing her.

“And the state is saying, ‘You are not allowed to do this’,” she said.

Dawson, Joy’s lawyer, said he expects a decision in the first half of 2007, and lawyers say decisions in similar cases in lower courts are being held over until the federal judges rule on her appeal.