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Freedom of Conscience and Islam

Christian Converts Put to the Test

By Father John Flynn

ROME, JUNE 5, 2007 (Zenit) - 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 ...

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