Kuala Lumpur – Lina Joy, the Malay lady who converted from Islam to Christianity, has lost her long battle to have her new religion legally recognized. On May 30 the Federal Court, which is the highest civil court in Malaysia, decided that only the Islamic Court may remove the word “Islam” from her identity card.
Without this change, Ms Joy cannot marry the man she loves, an Indian Christian. Of the three judges called to hear her appeal, one (Richard Malanjum) was in favour, two (Chief Justice Ahmad Fairuz Sheikh Abdul Halim and Federal Judge Alauddin Mohd Sheriff) against.
The verdict came after a long wait and much heated public debate, pressure from Islamic fundamentalists and death threats against the woman and her lawyers.
Azlina Jailani, 42, born Malay and therefore regarded as Muslim, began attending church in 1990. In 1998 she was baptized and took on the name Lina Joy. In 2000 she applied first to the National Registration Department (NRD) and then the Court of Appeal to remove the designation “Islam” (as her religion) from her identity papers.
It is only by having this change made that she be would be able to marry her Christian boyfriend of Indian origin because a Muslim woman cannot marry a non-Muslim man. Both the requests to the National Registration Department and to the Court of Appeal were refused. This led Ms Joy to appeal to the Federal Court.
She was refused in both earlier requests on the grounds that she was ethnic Malay. In Malaysia that made her legally a Muslim and being a Muslim she “could not change religion” and therefore the identification “Islam” could not be removed by the civil authorities. Religious issues involving Muslims fall under the jurisdiction of Islamic courts. Thus, two legal systems in the country: one based on Sharia (Islamic law); the other on the Constitution.
The two appear to be in conflict, as shown in Lina Joy‘s case. The constitution guarantees freedom of religion; Islamic law prohibits conversion to any other religion. The Federal Court‘s decision practically forces Lina Joy to marry a Muslim man in a Muslim ceremony and makes her subject to Muslim laws. Leaving Islam is called apostasy, which may be punished by forced rehabilitation, imprisonment or fines.
But referring Lina Joy to an Islamic Court for the purpose of getting a declaration that she is an apostate (one who has left Islam) so that the term “Islam” can be struck off from her identity paper, might cause her to suffer the penalties imposed for apostasy. It appears that the only choice left for her to lead a normal life and marry the man she loves is to leave her country.
But her problem is not just legal or religious. Since last year Ms Joy and the man she wants to marry have been in hiding after receiving death threats. They continue to receive such threats. Even her lawyer, a Muslim, and observers from the Malaysian Bar Council have been subjected to serious intimidation.
The wider implications
“A Muslim can renounce his faith but the way one leaves a religion is set by the religion itself, in this case Sharia law,” said Chief Justice Ahmad Fairuz Sheikh Abdul Halim to explain the decision of the court to refer Ms Joy to the Islamic Court to declare the woman an apostate in order that the National Registration Department can modify her documents.
The report in the The Star newspaper added that the Chief Justice said: “To say that she is not under the jurisdiction of the Sharia Court – because she no longer professes Islam – is not appropriate, (in so far as) the way one leaves a religion is set by the religion itself.” He said a mere statutory declaration that one has renounced Islam is not sufficient to remove the word “Islam” from a Muslim person‘s identity card. “This is because apostasy is an issue dealing with Islamic laws.”
Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi has stated that no political pressure (was used) to influence the Federal Court decision but admitted that the issue of non-Muslims and Islamic Courts needed to be dealt with by the government.
The Christian community has long appealed to the authorities to reaffirm the supremacy of the Constitution over Islamic laws. Jesuit Msgr Paul Tan Chee Ing, who is Chairman of the Christian Federation of Malaysia, said after the verdict: “To deny this basic human right of a person is to choose his/her religion is to usurp the power of God and the right of the person concerned. It is, therefore, inhuman and uncivilized.”
Teresa Kok Suh Sim, Catholic parliamentary of Chinese origins and member of the Democratic Action Party, has asked the government to “take immediate measures to amend the Federal Constitution” so that there is no doubt that the civil court is superior to the Islamic Court in all matters.
Similar statements were made by the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Sikhism, and Council of Churches in Malaysia.
Muslims constitute 47.7 percent of the total population of just over 24 million in Malaysia. The remainder is divided between Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and others. The minorities have often voiced concern about the spread of Sharia law from personal and family issues applicable to Muslims into the wider social context and even to non-Muslims.
In April 2006, worried over the situation, the Malaysian Bishops‘ Conference together with other non-Muslim communities took part in a national prayer campaign for “a return to religious freedom” in the country. Earlier this year, in an appeal made via AsiaNews to Malaysia‘s lawmakers, Msgr Paul Tan Chee Ing, who is Chairman of the Christian Federation of Malaysia, said that every means should be used to uphold “the constitution and the rights of non-Muslims”.
“Matters involving civil liberties and the family should come under the jurisdiction of civil courts rather than Islamic tribunals,” he insisted. Bishop Tan made the appeal at a time when Malaysia‘s dual legal system was being tested by several cases involving religion in burial rights and the custody of children.
“Non-Muslim communities are not prepared to accept the ‘cajoling‘ of the civil courts, forcing people to go before Sharia Courts,” the prelate said then. The Christian Federation of Malaysia had also organized a national prayer campaign in favour of minority rights. Other minority groups had also taken action in support.
The problem does not look like it will dissipate soon. A solution requires a change in the country‘s Constitution and, perhaps, even harder, a change in the beliefs of many.
Meanwhile, Ms Joy is in a bind. “I am devastated by the fact that the country‘s highest court is not able to guarantee a simple fundamental human right to its citizens: that of the freedom to choose their own faith and the person they want to marry,” she confessed to The Star newspaper after the verdict.
Source: www.chatolic.org (5 Juli 2007)