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Malaysia's top court to decide if Muslims can leave Islam without Shariah approval
The Associated Press (apwire)     Print Article 
Published 2006-04-14 13:54 (KST)   

Malaysia's highest court has agreed to decide whether the country's Islamic court has the exclusive right to deal with Muslims who renounce their faith, a lawyer said Friday.

The Federal Court ruling, expected in months, will be a rare step into the highly sensitive area of conversions _ and will likely have profound implications on cases about apostasy and religious freedom in this Muslim-majority country.

The Federal Court's announcement Thursday stems from the case of Lina Joy, who converted from Islam to Christianity in 1998. She applied to the National Registration Department to change her Muslim name, Azlina Jailani, on her government identity card the same year.

The NRD changed her name but refused to delete ''Islam'' from the card's religion entry, saying it needed permission from a Shariah court, which handles Islamic issues.

''This case should be viewed in the larger context of Islamization and the erosion of constitutional rights,'' said Joy's lawyer, Benjamin Dawson.

Muslims, who make up 60 percent of Malaysia's 26 million people, are governed by the Shariah courts on all civil and family matters.

Chinese and Indian minorities are under civil court jurisdiction.

But there are no clear jurisdiction guidelines in overlapping cases like Joy's.

A similar dilemma arose last year, when a Hindu soldier converted to Islam without telling his family. When he died, Islamic authorities claimed his body for burial, mandated under Islam. A court rejected his widow's plea that she get the body for cremation, required under Hinduism.

Dawson said Malaysia's constitution does not say a person needs Shariah court approval to convert out of Islam.

If the Shariah court had that right, it would never allow a Muslim to convert because it does not ''believe that anyone can change from Islam,'' he said.

Joy, 42, faces imprisonment due to the legal limbo her case is in, Dawson said.

''What happens if she steps into a church, for example? Or (gets) caught eating during the (Islamic) fasting month?'' he said. Shariah bars Muslims from both.

''She wants to get married to a non-Muslim, but cannot because the civil registry only marries non-Muslims, which she officially isn't right now,'' he said.

Federal Court Chief Justice Ahmad Fairuz Sheikh Abdul Halim said he and his two colleagues will let the court hear Joy's petition because it raises a novel issue of public importance, the New Straits Times newspaper reported Friday.

The Federal Court and lower courts have dealt with several similar cases in the past, ruling in favor of Shariah court.

Joy contends that those rulings ignored the constitutionally guaranteed right to religious freedom.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter The Associated Press

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