Kuala Lumpur (AsiaNews) – A harsh blow has been dealt to religious freedom in Malaysia. Lina Joy, the women who converted from Islam to Christianity, has lost her long and courageous battle to have her faith legally recognised. Today the Federal court, the highest civil court in the country, to which she appealed as her last hope, decided that only the Islamic Court may remove the word “Islam” from her documents.
Of the three judges called to hear her appeal, one was in favour, two against the Christian woman’s request; these last two are Chief Justice, Ahmad Fairuz Sheikh Abdul Halim and Federal Judges Alauddin Mohd Sheriff. The verdict comes after a long wait and years of heated internal debate, marked by pressure from Islamic fundamentalists and death threats against the woman and her lawyers.
Azlina Jailani, 42, began attending church in 1990, in 1998 she decided to become baptised and take on the name Lina Joy. In 2000 Lina applied first to the National Registration Department (NRD) and then the Court of Appeal to change her identity papers to remove 'Islam' as her religion. (the document also notes a citizen's faith). Only in this way would she be able to marry her Christian boyfriend of Indian origins. Both requests are refused leading Ms Joy to appeal to the Federal Court in 2005. She was refused in both cases because as ethnic Malay she was legally Muslim and "could not change religion”. Religious issues involving Malays, including conversions to other religions, fall under the jurisdiction of Islamic courts and not the country's general laws. De facto, two legal systems coexist in the country: one based on Islam; the other, on the constitution. And the two are often in conflict. Lina Joy's case illustrates this clearly. The constitution guarantees freedom of religion; Islamic law prohibits conversion to any other religion.
Today’s sentence forces Lina Joy to marry a Muslim man in a Muslim ceremony and makes her subject to the highly discriminatory Islamic family and inheritance laws. On various occasions the woman's lawyer, Benjamin Dawon, has said the Malaysian Constitution did not call for the approval of an Islamic tribunal for conversions from Islam.
Since last year Joy and her would-be Christian husband have been in hiding after extremists issued death threats against her for apostasy, threats which they continue to receive. Even her lawyer, himself a Muslim is subject to serious intimidation. Today about 200 protesters shouted "Allah-o-Akbar" (God is great) outside the court when the ruling was announced.
Out of a population of just over 24 million, Muslims constitute 47.7 per cent of the total. The remainder is divided between Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and cults like Shamanism. These minorities have long denounced the worrying spread of Sharia law. Islamic laws once upon a time only disciplined personal and familial issues; now however they are invading the wider social context. Last April the Malaysian bishop’s conference together with other non Muslim communities took part in a national prayer campaign for “a return to religious freedom” in the country.