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Malaysians in dispute over sway of religious courts

By Clarence Fernandez

ICC Note: The situation for non-muslims in Malaysia is becoming bleak as the sharia law is beginning to apply to everyone

3/17/09 Malaysia For full story…..(Reuters) – A new religious dispute has broken out in Malaysia after a civil court told non-Muslims to approach Islamic religious courts to resolve quarrels with Muslim spouses over family matters.

The move highlights the tension between civil and religious laws, which appear to give Muslims a privileged status over other Malaysians, stoking the latter’s fears about what they see as an erosion of their religious freedoms.

The appeal court in Malaysia , which boasts of religious diversity even though just over half of the country’s population is Muslim, also said a Muslim could seek to convert underage children without the consent of the non-Muslim spouse.

The decision, in a case in which an ethnic Indian woman is fighting her businessman husband for custody of their toddler sons after he converted to Islam last year, has stirred the concern of religious and rights groups.

Malaysia ‘s inter-faith council, which groups Buddhists, Christians, Sikhs and Taoists among others, is meeting within a week to hammer out plans to oppose the move, he told Reuters.

LEGAL AMBIGUITY

Many non-Muslims fear legal ambiguities could subject them to the jurisdiction of Islamic courts, but many Muslims see efforts to settle those uncertainties as an attack on religious courts.

Wider coverage in the mainstream media of sensitive topics such as conversion, apostasy and Malay rights has stirred tension in the Muslim community by provoking fears that it represents an attempt to erode the distinctive place of Islam in Malaysia .

Non-Muslims became unsure of their rights in 2005, when state Islamic authorities gave a former soldier a Muslim burial against the wishes of his Hindu widow, and the High Court said it had no jurisdiction over such religious matters.

In a similar case last December Islamic authorities had a legal tug-of-war with the Christian widow of a Muslim convert, but dropped their claim to his body when faced with evidence he was not a Muslim.

Two of the judges deciding this week’s case were Muslim, but the third, an ethnic Indian, disagreed with his colleagues, saying sharia courts only had authority over Muslims, and changing that position would infringe Malaysia ‘s constitution.

“This is not an unprecedented position and the federal court has recognized it before,” said Haris Ibrahim, one of the lawyers representing the wife. “Beyond that the pronouncements of the other two judges are really somewhat baffling.”

Haris said his client wanted to take her case to Malaysia ‘s top court, the Federal Court, if it agreed to hear it.

The decision also drew fire from rights groups, which said many non-Muslim women whose spouses convert, or plan to convert, to Islam worry about issues such as divorce and maintenance.

“These apprehensions are well-founded as the law governing such situations is unclear, inadequate or has been interpreted inaccurately or unjustly,” a group of six Malaysian women’s and social organisations said in a statement.