03/30/2016, 18.45
MALAYSIA
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Sarawak: forcibly converted to Islam as a child, man can return to Christianity

The Kuching High Court rules in favour Roneey Anak Rebit, who was registered as a Muslim, citing Article 11 of the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion. For Catholic priest, he was able to return to Christianity "because he had never practiced Islam and his life had nothing to do with that religion.” For others, “changing religion is almost impossible."

Kuala Lumpur (AsiaNews) – “This is good news, although it is not certain that it will lead on the short run to discussions on unilateral conversion of children,” said Fr Lawrence Andrew, editor of the Catholic weekly The Herald, following a decision by the Kuching High Court in Sarawak (one of Malaysia’s federated states) to allow a Muslim to convert to Christianity.

Such a decision is rare in a country where only a Sharia court can rule on religion changes. Anyone trying to leave Islam, an act deemed apostasy under Islamic law, faces an almost impossible task.

However, this particular case falls within a specific niche of conversions involving the children of mixed couples who must necessarily be registered as Muslim, and given in custody to the Muslim parent in case of break-up.

Roneey Anak Rebit, 41, was born a Christian but was converted to Islam by his parents and renamed Azmi Mohamad Azam. Since he never accepted his new faith, he was re-baptised in 1999 as a Christian, but for this to be legal, he had to change his status from Muslim to Christian with the National Registration Department.

On 24 March, Kuching High Court Justice Datuk Yew Jen Kie made the decision to allow Rebit to revert to Christianity citing Article 11 of the Malaysian Federal Constitution, which recognises freedom of religion.

According to Fr Andrew, Roneey Anak Rebit was able to return to Christianity "because he had never practiced Islam and his life had nothing to do with that religion. Some people testified that he never held to the Islamic faith. Hence, he was free to return to his old faith. In case of practicing Muslims, changing religion is almost impossible."

The court's decision generated positive comments among Christians and Muslims. In a statement, the Association of Churches in Sarawak thanked "the Kuching High Court for coming to a fair and just decision in accordance with the law. We call upon the federal government to honour and give effect to the guarantee of religious freedom as provided in the Malaysia Agreement*."

"This judgment reaffirms the supremacy of the Federal Constitution, which under Article 11 defends every Malaysian citizen's right to freedom of religion,” said the Sisters in Islam in a statement. The latter is a moderate Muslim women’s group established in 1988 to fight oppression of women in the name of Islam.

For his part, the government has announced plans for reform regarding unilateral conversion of minors but has not yet set a date for it to be tabled in parliament.

* The Malaysia Agreement of 1963 united North Borneo, Sarawak and for a short while Singapore with Malaya to form Malaysia.

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