09/09/2004, 00.00
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Catholic bishops oppose Islamic state

by Paolo Nicelli

Malaysia's complex identity: a Muslim majority tempted by Sharî'a law and a multiracial, secular state that guarantees religious freedom. Catholic Bishops back new, moderate Prime Minister Abdullâh Badawi.

Kuala Lumpur (AsiaNews) – In the last few months Malaysians have been talking about a case concerning in which religious freedom was denied. Shamala Sathyyaseelan, a non Muslim mother of two, asked Malaysia's highest court why her children were forcibly converted to Islam without her consent and knowledge. The Supreme Court sidestepped the case by declaring it was incompetent and referred it to the Sharî'a Court (Majlis Agama Islâm Wilayah Persekutuan). The woman's lawyers objected arguing that the Sharî'a Court does not have jurisdiction over non Muslims. In the gap between two competing legal systems Ms Sathyyaseelan is alone, her case in limbo.

In Malaysia two legal systems coexist: one based on the country's federal constitution and civil courts; the other framed by Sharî'a law and applied in principle to only Muslims. In Ms Sathyyaseelan's case, with the Supreme Court washing its hands, the Sharî'a Court is likely to uphold the father's claim and sanction the children's conversion to Islam.

Along with many non governmental organisations, Shamala Sathyyaseelan's case has been taken up by Malaysia's Catholic bishops. In a recently released paper, the bishops stress how in mixed marriages the weaker, i.e. non Muslim, party faces most of the problems. Although formally protected under the law non Muslims must accept the decisions of Islamic courts which inevitably privilege Muslim applicants.

Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy and a federation. Under the constitution Islam is the federation's official religion, but other religions (Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Taoism, Shamanism, traditional animist religions) can "be practiced in peace and harmony". The document goes further in protecting religious freedom for it states that "no person shall be required to receive instruction in or take part in any ceremony or act of worship of a religion other than his own" and that "the religion of a person under the age of eighteen years shall be decided by his parent or guardian" (art. 12: 3, 4). On the basis of these principles, Malaysia's bishops maintain that "it is not in the best interests of the child" that a parent convert him, or her or do so without the knowledge of the other parent. For this reason they urge government and parliament to adopt laws requiring courts to uphold and protect constitutionally-guaranteed freedom of religion and parental rights.

The bishops' action goes beyond the Sathyyaseelan's case and touches upon the nature of the state itself. When the Federation of Malaya was first founded in 1948 (changing its name to Malaysia in 1963) the newly-independent country adopted a constitution designed to reconcile its many races and religions and guarantee their rights. The constitutional document does allow that whilst Islam is the national religion, Malaysia is a secular state that guarantees freedom of religion. For this reason the bishops argue that Sharî'a law cannot become the law of the land. "[Saying] that Islam is the religion of the Federation does not mean extending Sharî'a law to the entire legal system. . . . We reject any move to declare Malaysia an Islamic state or entail a role for Sharî'a law in the legislative and regulatory processes."

As it is, under Malaysia's dual legal system, non Muslims are discriminated in areas such conversion, court jurisdiction, property, and inheritance. This had led religious minorities to become increasingly resentful towards the Muslim majority. In order to avoid any religious conflict, Mgr Murphy Pakiam, Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur, has called on Christians to play a positive role in Malaysian society and back the administration of newly-appointed Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullâh Ahmad Badawi.

In a speech on Merdeka (Independence) Day, August 31, Bishop Murphy reminded his audience that Prime Minister Badawi has been stressing the need for "moderation" and encouraging a "dialogues among cultures and religions" to rid the country of "racial and religious fundamentalism" which fuel "violent radicalism".

In a speech before the Ecumenical Council of Churches, Mr Badawi presented himself as "a Muslim who wants to speak to all Malaysians, Muslims and non Muslims alike, someone whose duty is to promote a message of tolerance among the people, in particular in the Muslim majority".

For the Prime Minister, with humanity and Malaysia facing so many problems, those who love peace and tolerance must act like "beacons of hope". Religion, in his opinion, must bring out what is good in people, not what is bad. Religion should not be used to fight wars and carry out acts of terror; instead, it should lead people towards solving conflicts, towards peace and a more equitable world order.

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