Verdict in dispute over Christian convert could define Muslim Malaysia's religious identity
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) -- Lina Joy has been disowned by her family, shunned by friends and forced into hiding -- all because she renounced Islam and embraced Christianity in Muslim-majority Malaysia.
Now, after a seven-year legal struggle, Malaysia's highest court will decide on Wednesday whether her constitutional right to choose her religion overrides an Islamic law that prohibits Malay Muslims from leaving Islam.
Either way, the verdict will have profound implications on society in a country where Islam is increasingly conflicting with minority religions, challenging Malaysia's reputation as a moderate Muslim and multicultural nation that guarantees freedom of worship.
Joy's case began in 1998 when, after converting, she applied for a name change on her government identity card. The National Registration Department obliged but refused to drop Muslim from the religion column.
She appealed the decision to a civil court but was told she must take it to Islamic Shariah courts. But Joy, 42, has argued that she should not be bound by Shariah law because she is a Christian.
Subsequent appeals all ruled that the Shariah court should decide the case until it reached the highest court, the Federal Court, which will make the final decision on whether Muslims who renounce their faith must still answer to the country's Islamic courts.
About 60 percent of Malaysia's 26 million people are Malay Muslims, whose civil, family, marriage and personal rights are decided by Shariah courts. The minorities -- the ethnic Chinese, Indians and other smaller communities -- are governed by civil courts.
But the constitution does not say who has the final say in cases such as Joy's when Islam confronts Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism or other religions.
If Joy loses her appeal and continues to insist she is a Christian, it could lead to charges of apostasy and a possible jail sentence.
"Our country is at a crossroad," Joy's lawyer, Benjamin Dawson, told The Associated Press. "Are we evolving into an Islamic state or are we going to maintain the secular character of the constitution?"
The founding fathers of Malaysia left the constitution deliberately vague, unwilling to upset any of the three ethnic groups dominant at the time of independence from Britain 50 years ago, when building a peaceful multiracial nation was more important.
The situation was muddied further with the constitution describing Malaysia as a secular state but recognizing Islam as the official religion.
Joy's case "will decide the space of religious freedom in Malaysia," said Dawson. If she wins, "it means that the constitutionally guaranteed right of freedom of religion prevails. If she loses, that means the constitutional guarantee is subservient to Islamic restrictions," he said.
Joy's decision to leave Islam sparked angry street protests by Muslim groups and led to e-mail death threats against Malik Imtiaz Sarwar, a Muslim lawyer supporting her. The widely circulated anonymous e-mail described him as a "traitor" to Islam and carried his picture with the caption "Wanted Dead."
Proselytizing of Muslims is banned in Malaysia and apostasy is regarded a crime punishable by fines and jail sentences. Offenders are often sent to prison-like rehabilitation centers.
Many Islamic nations have similar laws. Saudi Arabia neither permits conversion from Islam nor allows other religions in the kingdom. The case of an Afghan man who faced the death penalty for converting from Islam to Christianity caused an outcry in the United States and other nations, and Afghanistan released him.
Even Jordan, considered one of the most tolerant countries in the Middle East, convicted a Muslim man for converting to Christianity several years ago, taking away his right to work and annulling his marriage.
By law, all Malays have to be Muslim and few convert. Those who do prefer to keep it quiet.
Some seek legal approval for their action, but civil courts invariably refer the case back to the Shariah courts.
Joy was born Azlina Jailani and began going to church in 1990. She was baptized eight years later. She then applied for the changes to her identity card.
When authorities refused her request to drop Muslim from the religion designation, Joy went to the High Court in May 2000 but was told to go to Shariah courts. She challenged the decision in the Court of Appeal but lost, and took it to Malaysia's highest court in 2005.
The hearing in Federal Court ended in July 2006, but it has taken the judges until now to declare a verdict, saying a careful examination was necessary because of the sensitivity of the case.
Meanwhile, Joy has been disowned by her family and forced to quit her computer sales job after clients threatened to withdraw their business. Joy and her ethnic Indian Catholic boyfriend, known only as Johnson, went into hiding early 2006 amid fears they could be targeted by Muslim zealots, Dawson said.
"Lina is very steadfast in her belief. She is aware that her chances (of winning) are slim but is putting her faith in God. She is just an ordinary Malaysian girl who wants to lead an ordinary life."
Joy has never made any public appearances and has rejected requests for interviews.
In a sworn statement to a lower court in 2000, she said she felt "more peace in my spirit and soul after having become a Christian."
Muslim groups, however, say Joy is questioning the position of Islam by taking the case to the civil courts.
"It is not about one person, it is about challenging the Islamic system in Malaysia," said Muslim Youth Movement President Yusri Mohammad, who set up a coalition of 80 Islamic groups to oppose Joy's case.
"By doing this openly, she is encouraging others to do the same. It may open the floodgates to other Muslims because once it is a precedent, it becomes an option."
If Joy wins her case, he warned, it could rend Malaysia's multiracial fabric by fomenting Muslim anger against minorities, who have largely lived in peace with Malays. There has been no racial violence in the country since the May 1969 Malay-Chinese riots that killed dozens.
Dawson said several apostasy cases are on hold in the civil courts, pending a verdict in Joy's case.
"Both the man in the street and lawyers want to know once and for all how to draw the line between civil and Shariah courts -- whether Muslims can convert and if yes, what are the procedures," he said.
By: EILEEN NG - Associated Press Writer
Malaysian Could be Jailed for Converting from Islam to Christianity
Lina Joy facts
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28th May 2007 19:31 #1Registered User
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Malaysian could be jailed for converting from Islam to Christianity
28th May 2007 21:24 #2Registered User
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Muslim nations urged to create new 'Golden Age of Islam'
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia: Malaysia, Indonesia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan challenged Islamic countries Monday to work together to create a new golden age to liberate Muslims from poverty, conflict and extremism.
The five nations told an Islamic conference that many of the 1.6 billion Muslims globally rank among the world's poorest people with an international reputation that has been tarnished by false perceptions that most support terrorism.
"We are now at a crossroads in our history as an ummah (Muslim community). Never in the history of the ummah ... have we faced such great odds," Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi told government officials, corporate executives and analysts attending the World Islamic Economic Forum.
"While the nations of the West basked in the glory of their global ascendancy, Muslim nations were largely consigned to what people term 'the Third World,'" Abdullah said.
He noted that the 57 members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference accounted for only 5 percent of world's gross domestic product in 2005 despite comprising 21 percent of the global population.
Abdullah said Muslim nations must take bold measures such as investing heavily in education. He cited the examples of his own country, which spent 8 percent of its gross domestic product on education in 2004, and the United Arab Emirates, which recently announced a US$10 billion (€7.4 billion) endowment for investments in education across Arab countries.
Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who leads the world's most populous Muslim country, said Islamic nations can work "as a collective force" for their own development because they currently supply 70 percent of the world's energy requirements and 40 percent of raw material exports globally.
"We in the Islamic ummah can achieve true solidarity among ourselves ... and reclaim the eminence that (we) enjoyed in the Golden Age of Islam," Yudhoyono said.
He suggested Muslim countries remove trade barriers to boost business and encourage tourism.
Kuwait's Prime Minister Sheik Nasser Al Mohammed Al Sabah said another challenge for Muslim countries is to promote dialogue with the rest of the world, especially to "refute activities by the minority (of Muslims) who do not represent the tolerance of Islam."
Sheik Saud Bin Saqr Al Qasimi, the Crown Prince of Ras Al-Khaimah in the United Arab Emirates, said such efforts to improve ties with other nations were necessary because "the Muslim world is not an island, it is part of the (larger) world."
Zahid Hamid, Pakistan's Minister of Privatization and Investment, said a widening ideological chasm between the West and the Islamic world has resulted in Muslims "paying the highest price for being caught in the clash between extremism and moderation."
Islamic countries increasingly feel "the overwhelming majority of Muslims ... are being demonized for the actions of a small minority," he said, adding that frustrations have grown because of persistent conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestinian territories.
The Associated Press
29th May 2007 11:42 #3Registered User
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Malaysia faces key ruling on religious freedom
May 29, 2007
KUALA LUMPUR -- Multi-racial Malaysia faces a milestone legal verdict Wednesday, which lawyers and rights groups say will determine if Muslims can renounce their faith.
The case, involving a woman who converted from Islam to Christianity, goes to the heart of a debate on whether civil courts should take precedence over tribunals based on Islamic Sharia law.
It comes at a time of heightened religious tensions in moderate Malaysia, and would address an issue - renunciation of the faith - that is one of the gravest sins in Islam.
The Federal Court will rule on an appeal by Lina Joy, who for a decade has been battling the government to have her decision to convert to Christianity officially recognized.
"Although it is not freedom of religion per se, the decision will determine if she can convert out of Islam without going to the Sharia court," said the vice-president of Malaysia's Bar Council, Ragunath Kesavan.
"Our position has always been that she should be allowed to do so, in respect to the constitution," Ragunath said.
Islam is Malaysia's official religion. More than 60 percent of the nation's 27 million people are Muslim Malays.
But while the constitution defines the ethnic majority Malays as Muslims it also guarantees freedom of religion, and the minority Chinese and Indians are mostly Buddhists, Hindus, or Christians.
Born an ethnic Malay Muslim, and called Azlina Jailani, Joy was introduced to Christianity in 1990.
It has left her fighting authorities, first for her new name to be put on her identity card, then to have her former religion removed.
Joy keeps a low profile, fearing retaliation, and cannot legally marry her Christian partner because the law requires non-Muslims to convert to Islam if they want to marry someone of that faith.
"Malaysians mostly want to know whether they can convert out of Islam, and if so what is the procedure. This verdict will clarify that," said her lawyer, Benjamin Dawson.
The appeal centers on whether Joy must go to a Sharia court to have her renunciation recognized before authorities delete the word 'Islam' from her identity card.
Malaysia's civil courts operate parallel to Sharia courts for Muslims in areas of family law including divorce, child custody, and inheritance.
But the question of which takes precedence is unclear 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 Sharia courts can recognize her conversion - but the latter are unwilling to approve apostasy.
"The country has to be ruled by the constitution but we seem to have lost it," Dawson said. "In the growing prominence of the Sharia court, things seem to have gone into a grey area with competing claims to jurisdiction," he said.
"Our civil courts seem to think that conversion is a religious matter and not constitutional, which I think is wrong."
In recent weeks Malaysia has seen a string of cases in which Muslims and non-Muslim spouses have been forced apart by Islamic religious officials.
In another example last year, an ethnic Indian mountaineer was buried as a Muslim despite protests by his Hindu wife, who insisted that he never converted.
Ivy Josiah of the Women's Aid Organization, part of a coalition of groups monitoring Joy's case, said that Wednesday's decision could affect a woman's right to choose her life partner.
"When you take all the legalities away, here is someone who wants to get married, have children, and have her own set of beliefs," Josiah said.
Some Muslims have denounced Joy's legal challenge as a tactic to undermine Islam's status in the country, but Josiah said that misses the point.
"Certain groups fear that with Lina Joy leaving, it will open the so-called 'floodgates' of people wanting to renounce Islam," she said. "Let her be who she wants to be. It is between her and God. That is the spirit of the constitution, to have choices for our beliefs."
Middle East Times
Last edited by _DigitaLVampirE_; 29th May 2007 at 20:44. Reason: Updating
30th May 2007 04:52 #4Registered User
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Malaysia's Lina Joy loses Islam conversion case
Malaysia's Lina Joy loses Islam conversion case
Wed May 30, 2007 8:56 AM IST
KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysia's most famous Christian convert, Lina Joy, lost a six-year battle on Wednesday to have the word "Islam" removed from her identity card, after the country's highest court rejected the change.
The Federal Court's ruling helps define the boundaries of religious freedom in multi-racial Malaysia, whose constitution guarantees freedom of worship but makes its practically impossible for ethnic Malays Like Joy to renounce Islam.
30th May 2007 05:17 #5Registered User
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Malaysia court rejects woman's religion change
PUTRAJAYA, Malaysia – Malaysia's top secular court on Wednesday rejected a woman's appeal to be recognized as a Christian, in a landmark case that tested the limits of religious freedom in this moderate Islamic country.
Lina Joy, who was born Azlina Jailani, had applied for a name change on her government identity card. The National Registration Department obliged but refused to drop Muslim from the religion column.
She appealed the decision to a civil court but was told she must take it to Islamic Shariah courts. But Joy, 42, argued that she should not be bound by Shariah law because she is a Christian.
A three-judge Federal Court panel ruled Wednesday that 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 Malaysian Constitution guarantees freedom of religion to all citizens. But Muslims, who comprise nearly 60 per cent of the 26 million population, have not been allowed by the Shariah courts to legally leave their religion.
By EILEEN NG
Lina Joy loses appeal
Woman's Christian conversion unrecognised
Malaysia court rules in religion case
Last edited by _DigitaLVampirE_; 30th May 2007 at 05:43.
30th May 2007 05:26 #6Registered User
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The Koran states that the act of apostasyor abandoning the Muslim faith is punishable by death. Under Malaysian law, Lina Joy if found guilty, can be sentenced to three years in a faith rehabilitation center, where Muslim counselors try to persuade them to return to Islam (i am told by a Malaysian collegue). If apostates do not “repent,” they can be sentenced to a further six years of “rehabilitation.”
Bottomline question: Is it good to have Shari'a law in countries? Do citizens have the right to change their religion? How do other Muslims view this case?
30th May 2007 17:56 #7Registered User
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Lina Joy verdict: No freedom, no compassion
Lina Joy’s 10-year battle to be herself as she wanted to be within the confines of the supreme law of the country, the Federal Constitution, has been dashed by the Federal Court’s decision this morning. The freedom of religion guaranteed by the Federal Constitution under Article 11 comes across as hollow and meaningless. This decision has totally rendered null and void the freedom of religion guaranteed by the Federal Constitution. Under the circumstances, the Federal Court’s decision has a devastating effect on issues of fairness and justice. Concerned citizens will rightly wonder whether the judiciary is capable of delivering justice for those who turn to it. They will be turned away from the judicial system of the country thinking that the judges who are sworn to uphold the Federal Constitution in the course of their duty are not living up to their oath of office.
Lina Joy’s case is something that has to be viewed strictly within the confines of the Constitution without taking into account any other consideration. When other considerations come into play, then justice becomes the victim as is the case in the Lina Joy verdict.
This decision, looked at from another point of view, undermines the judiciary itself. The judiciary cannot be technical in delivering its verdict. Fairness and justice should be part of any judgment and should not be sacrificed on technical grounds. Where is the compassion for someone who has turned to the judiciary for a solution to free her from her predicament? Can justice redeem itself? Is there hope for the ordinary person in our judiciary?
It is really troubling when a issue such as this is politicised and blown out of all proportion and pressure is mounted to deny justice.
Aliran Executive Committee
30 May 2007