Malaysian Court Says No to Change of Religious Status

Friday, September 30, 2005

Lina Joy must seek permission from sharia court to convert from Islam – a criminal offense.

by Sarah Page

DUBLIN, September 29 (Compass) – Judges in Malaysia’s Court of Appeal announced on September 19 that Lina Joy, a former Muslim who converted to Christianity in the late 1980s, must apply to a sharia court for permission to legally renounce Islam.

According to local media reports, the court pointed out that Joy, 41, was constitutionally free to practice the religion of her choice. The Muslim designation on her identity card, however, prevents her from marrying a Christian and places other restrictions on her everyday life.

By law, Malaysian citizens over the age of 12 must apply for and carry an identity card with them at all times. In addition, all identity cards issued to Muslims must clearly display their religious identity.

Joy – known as Azlina Jailani before she converted – first approached the National Registration Department (NRD) in February 1997, seeking permission to change her name and religious status.

The application was rejected in August 1997 on the grounds that the sharia court had not granted permission for her to renounce Islam.

In 1998, the NRD allowed the name change, but refused to change the religious status on her identity card.

Joy appealed this decision in the High Court. In April 2001, Judge Datuk Faiza Tamby Chik ruled that she could not change her religious identity, because ethnic Malays are defined as Muslims under the Constitution.

“As a Malay, the plaintiff exists under the tenets of Islam until her death,” the judge told the Berita Harian newspaper.

He also said jurisdiction in such cases lay solely in the hands of the sharia court.

Joy then took her case to the Court of Appeal, where it was heard in October 2004. In December, the appeals court ruled that the director-general of the NRD and the High Court Judge Datuk Gopal Sri Ram must give a legal rationale for their decisions by mid February 2005, prior to another hearing on March 7.

At the March hearing, Joy’s counsel, Cyrus Das, argued that the NRD could not legally require her to produce a certificate from the sharia court. Joy has always argued that, following a statutory declaration of her conversion to Christianity, she should not be subject to sharia law.

Islamic law professor Shad Faruqi dismissed this argument, explaining that official approval of conversions was a legal safeguard. Without it, Muslims could evade sharia law by leaving their faith whenever they were charged with a religious offense.

In the final decision announced 10 days ago, Justice Abdul Aziz and Justice Arifin Zakaria ruled that the NRD was correct in rejecting Joy’s application and said it was up to the sharia court to settle the issue.

Malaysian lawyers say the sharia court has never granted permission for a Malaysian Muslim to convert out of Islam, according to a Straits Times article on September 20.

Article 11 of the Malaysian Constitution gives every person the right to change his or her religion; but Article 3 declares Islam to be the official religion of the state. The dual court system in Malaysia also complicates matters.

A person who converts out of Islam is called an “apostate” – which sharia law regards apostasy as a criminal offense. In extreme application of sharia law, apostasy is punishable by death.

In an effort to discourage conversions, several states have adopted the Control and Restriction Bill, which proscribes a fine of 10,000 ringgit ($2,653) and/or imprisonment for up to one year for “persuading, influencing or inciting a Muslim to leave Islam for another religion.”

Not all Malaysians agree with these laws. “What we now see is that the public is more vocal than a few years back in openly talking about these matters and willing to challenge court decisions,” a source who preferred to remain anonymous told Compass.

In a letter to a Malaysian newspaper, one man wrote, “Most Malays who leave Islam do it out of conviction, not convenience, and nothing will stop them. They have their reasons, as we all do when we choose to believe in God or a religion or not.

“It is our God-given fundamental right, supported by declarations of human rights and our Constitution, and no one ought to rob us of it.”

Copyright 2005 Compass Direct