Highest Court in Malaysia to Hear Appeal of Christian Converts from Islam

(Morning Star News) On Monday (Feb. 26), the highest court in Malaysia is scheduled to hear the appeal of four people who wish to have their conversions from Islam to Christianity legally recognized.

In a country where there is no legal way to leave Islam, the four people are asking the Federal Court to have their names and their faith changed on their national identity cards.

Three of the four were raised as Christians but converted to Islam in order to marry Muslims. Jenny Peter divorced her Muslim husband in 2006 and returned to Christianity. Salina Jau was divorced by her Muslim husband in 1992, and then she returned to Christianity. Tiong Choo Ting began to practice Christianity after his Muslim wife died in 2007.

All three signed “statutory declarations” that they intended to return to Christianity. They were required to undergo “counselling” regarding their faith. No coercion is exerted in the counselling, which takes place at the state department of religion in two to five sessions running from 30 minutes to an hour. According to court records, “All appelates attended counselling sessions and remained firm in their stand to renounce Islam.”

The fourth person, Syarifah Nooraffyzza, is an ethnic Malay raised as a Muslim. According to the Malaysian Constitution, all ethnic Malays are Muslims – a principle upheld in the case of Lina Joy, who was denied her right to leave Islam in 2007 and convert to Christianity. Syarifah filed a document stating that she no longer practices Islam, and she was baptized in 2009, according to published reports. She is asking to change her identity card from Muslim to Christian and to change her name to Vanessa Elizabeth.

She as well as the other three people are “still Muslims on papers,” according to an appeals court. Because they are considered Muslims, they need to get “letters of apostasy” (the literal translation of the Malay surat murtad) from a Sharia (Islamic law) Court.

The Sharia Court in the state of Sarawak has held that it has power to certify only people converting to Islam, not from Islam. The civil courts have stated that Islamic religious matters are handled by the sharia court system, which is roughly parallel to the civil system. This leaves people wishing to leave Islam in legal limbo.

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In Malaysia children born to Muslim parents are considered to be Muslims, and a non-Muslim who wishes to marry a Muslim must first convert to Islam.

The process of converting to Islam is relatively easy in Malaysia, but leaving is difficult. Baru Bian, lawyer for the four, has held that “since religious freedom or right is a fundamental right under the Federal Constitution of Malaysia, there cannot be any hindrances, procedural or otherwise, for a person to profess any religion of his/her choice.”

“We pray for a favorable outcome, because there are many who are caught in such a quandary and are longing for a way out and freedom to choose and profess the religion of their choice,” he said in a press statement. “Only an order from the court can direct the Federal Registry to comply with the appellants’ applications that their status be changed in the Registry’s data system, and consequently their IDs be changed as well.”

The case could be critical for those wishing to convert out of Islam in the state of Sarawak and the whole country, and the attorney asked for prayer for the pivotal question of religious freedom in Malaysia.

The court is not expected to immediately make known its decision when it rules on the appeal.

Malaysia ranked 23rd on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2018 World Watch List of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.

Malaysia’s population is about 61 percent Muslim, the official religion is Islam, and there are signs that hard-line Islamist influences are growing. With Islam as the state religion, the government provides financial support to Islamic establishments and enforces the tenets of Sunni Islam. While freedom of religion is guaranteed in the constitution, legally a Malay must be a Muslim. State governments have fined or imprisoned Muslims who have tried to convert out of Islam.

The federal government does not usually take up legal disputes over conversion, leaving it to the courts, but secular courts have ruled they do not have the authority to decide such cases and refer them to Sharia Courts. These Islamic courts have unanimously ruled that all ethnic Malays must remain Muslims. Non-Malays who have converted to Islam also are not allowed to leave the religion.

Thus converts find themselves in a legal bind; civil courts say conversions come under the jurisdiction of the Sharia Courts, but converts believe they are not subject to them because they are no longer Muslim.

Muslims who have attempted to convert have reportedly received death threats.

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