Kuala Lumpur (AsiaNews/Agencies) In a society where those born as Malays are automatically declared to be Muslim, Lina Joy had to fight to be recognized as a Christian. A superior court ruled on Monday 19 September that the Malay people (one out of four ethnic groups Malay, Chinese, Indians and tribals of the country) "cannot renounce Islam": in this way, the judges made it clear to the woman that she cannot practice her faith freely.
Azalina Jailani who changed her name to Lina Joy in 1998, after converting to Christianity appeared before a panel composed of three judges (two Muslims and one Hindu), who told her that her renunciation of Islam was "impossible without the permission of Muslim religious authorities". The judges clarified that the law "does not guarantee, nor does it provide a procedure which obliges the authorities to recognise a change in religion".
Judge Sri Ram, a Hindu, held that the woman could renounce Islam by declaring that she was not a Muslim however he also added that religious freedom was guaranteed in Malaysia so there should be no need for her to seek permission.
Lina Joy went to court to force the National Registration Department to replace the word "Islam" in her identity card with the word "Christian" so that she could be married in a civil ceremony to her Christian husband.
The ruling affects about 15,000 Malaysians who want to be able to live openly as Christians. "The decision leaves many Malay converts in a perpetual state of limbo," said a Muslim lawyer who has represented apostates in court.
The constitution defines as people of Malay race those citizens of Malaysia who profess Islam, speak the national language and practise Malay culture. Constitutionally, when Malays renounce Islam they cease to be Malay.
"We are deeply disappointed ... we had a lot of hope riding on this decision," said another Malay Christian and mother of three children. "We Malays are non-persons in our own country because we are Christians."
Although the law guarantees religious freedom, converts live in fear because Muslims consider apostasy to be a terrible crime. Malay Sharia (Islamic law) punishes apostates with forced "rehabilitation" or imprisonment, and the Korean warns of "death and damnation" for the Muslim who helps another to renounce Islam. Among converts are many students who changed faith while studying for a long time abroad. Others have married Christians and they want the Islamic authorities to recognize their faith and that of their families.
A 48-year-old Christian woman said: "We are discriminated and virtually live underground lives. Our parents, siblings and friends all shun us like lepers."
Legal experts said political will was needed to recognise and resolve the dilemma of Malay apostates. "The problem can be resolved by amending the constitution and creating a new 'non-Muslim Malay' category," said an academic.