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Freedom of Conscience and Islam: Christian Converts Put to the Test

ICC Note: A commentary on the difficulty of being a Christian in an Islamic country.

By Father John Flynn
6/11/07 Malaysia (aina) — If you live in a predominantly Muslim country and want to convert to Christianity, chances are your faith will be put to the test. The latest example of troubles Christian converts face comes from Malaysia , where last week the country’s highest civil court rejected a woman’s appeal to be recognized as a Christian, the Associated Press reported May 30.

Lina Joy, born Azlina Jailani, had applied to change both her name and religion on the government identity card all citizens carry. The name change was not a problem, but authorities refused to delete the Muslim identification from the card. According to the Associated Press, about 60% of Malaysia ‘s 26 million people are Muslims.

A May 26 report by the Associated Press recounted that Joy began going to church in 1990 and was baptized eight years later. She went to the Federal Court in May 2000 in order to oblige government authorities to change the religious designation on her identity card, but the tribunal ordered her to take the matter to Shariah courts. Joy’s next step was to take the matter to the Court of Appeal, but she also lost her case in that tribunal.

Joy appealed the case before the Federal Court in 2005. The arguments ended in July 2006, with the decision denying her appeal handed down last week.

In the meantime, the Associated Press reported that Joy has been disowned by her family and forced to quit her computer sales job after clients threatened to withdraw their business.

The three judges of the Federal Court ruled 2-1 against her. Only the Islamic Shariah Court has the power to allow her to remove the word “Islam” from the religion category on her government identity card, the decision stated.

The wording of the decision showed the difficulties involved in obtaining freedom for religious converts. “You can’t at whim and fancy convert from one religion to another,” said Federal Court Chief Justice Ahmad Fairuz Sheikh Abdul Halim in his judgment, Reuters reported May 30.

“The issue of apostasy is related to Islamic law, so it’s under the Shariah court,” he stated.

According to Reuters, the country’s Shariah courts generally do not allow Muslims to formally renounce Islam, preferring to send what they consider to be apostates for counseling. They even fine or jail them.

Fundamental right denied

Shortly after the court’s decision, Joy announced that she may leave Malaysia for not being able to freely practice her religion, the Associated Press reported May 31. “I am disappointed that the Federal Court is not able to vindicate a simple but important fundamental right that exists in all persons: namely, the right to believe in the religion of one’s choice,” Joy declared in a statement released through her lawyer, Benjamin Dawson.

Joy is not alone in her problems. Last year BBC radio broadcast a report on the problems faced by Christian converts in Malaysia . According to a report on the program published by the BBC last Nov. 15, many converts are obliged to lead a secret, double life.

“If people know that I’ve converted to Christianity, they might take the law into their own hands. If they are not broadminded, they might take a stone and throw it at me,” said Maria, one of the converts interviewed by the BBC.

Maria’s case was so sensitive that the priest who baptized her refused to give her a baptismal certificate. Maria has concealed her conversion from her family for fear of the negative reaction it would provoke.

Further problems were reported last Dec. 6 by the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper in Australia . A Malaysian hospital refused to hand over a dead man’s body to his widow because she planned to give her husband, a Muslim who converted to Christianity, a burial in accordance with his new religion.

The widow, 69-year-old Lourdes Mary Maria Soosay, complained to the police of harassment by Islamic religious authorities regarding the matter of the burial of her 71-year-old husband, Rayappan Anthony.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, this was the second time in about a year that a non-Muslim has fought for funeral rights over a family member. In the first, Islamic officials gave a former soldier a Muslim burial against the wishes of his Hindu widow.

A similar case was the subject of a report April 19 by the South China Morning Post newspaper. Kaliammal Sinnasamy, a Hindu woman, saw her husband’s body taken from her by Islamic authorities and buried as a Muslim in December 2005.

Her husband, Moorthy Maniam, was a Hindu, his widow declared. Her attempts before Malaysia ‘s courts to impede the Islamic burial of her husband came to nothing, when the tribunal ruled that it had no jurisdiction to hear any matter involving Islam, even if one party is a non-Muslim. Sinnasamy has appealed the decision.

Problems abound

Malaysia is far from the only country where Christians face considerable difficulties. Last year the case of Abdul Rahman, a convert in Afghanistan who risked a death sentence for converting to Christianity, received widespread coverage.

Rahman had lived in Germany for some years, but after returning home was arrested in February 2006, explained a report on the case published the following March 23 by the Washington Post. Rahman was freed and escaped prosecution after authorities declared him to be mentally unfit for trial, reported the BBC on March 29. He was, however, forced to flee Afghanistan , and was given refuge in Italy .

Meanwhile, Somalia prohibits all conversions, reported the Catholic Information Service for Africa last Sept. 21. After the fall of the government in 1991, Somalia fell into chaos. A transitional government was established in October 2004. This government later adopted a Transitional Federal Charter, which established Islam as the national religion.

Another African government, Morocco , recently jailed a tourist for six months for the crime of attempting to convert Muslims, reported Reuters last Nov. 29.

A German of Egyptian origin, Sadek Noshi Yassa, was arrested as he was distributing books and CDs about the Christian faith to young Muslim Moroccans in the street, officials said. A court in Agadir found the 64-year-old man guilty of trying to “shake the faith of a Muslim.”

Religious violence

Apart from problems related to conversion, life for Christians in many Islamic countries is difficult, to say the least. On May 3 the Guardian newspaper in Britain reported on the situation in the northern Nigerian city of Kano .

Militants from a group founded by radical Islamic students recently went on a killing rampage, which left 10 dead. According to the Guardian, the episode sent a new wave of fear through Kano ‘s minority Christian community. The region has suffered religious violence that has caused tens of thousands of deaths in recent years.

Another problematic country is Pakistan , where Christians were recently warned to convert, or face violence, reported the Associated Press on May 16. About 500 Pakistani Christians in Charsadda, a town in the North-West Frontier Province bordering Afghanistan , received letters in early May telling them to close their churches and convert.

Easter is also another touchy issue. In fact, Easter is illegal in Saudi Arabia , explained a report by the Associated Press on April 9. The kingdom allows only the Muslim feasts of al-Fitr, which marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan, and al-Adha, which concludes the annual pilgrimage to Mecca .

As well, the article reported that the crown prince, Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, has stressed that the kingdom would never allow churches to be built. More than ever, Christians living in Islamic countries are in need of prayers.