Court verdict delayed; Lina Joy’s mother publicly begs her to return to Islam.
DUBLIN, August 25– Lina Joy, a Malaysian convert to Christianity, has gone into hiding after extremists issued death threats against her and the lawyers supporting her cause.
Escalating furor over the latest stage in Joy’s lengthy struggle to change her religious status has led Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to order a halt to all public debate on the issue. Despite converting to Christianity 16 years ago, in 1990, Joy is still legally identified as a Muslim. (See Compass Direct, “Religious Laws Oppress Christian Converts in Malaysia,” April 26.)
Joy, previously known as Azlina binti Jailani, requested a name change from the National Registration Department (NRD) in 1997. The NRD granted the name change in October 1999 but retained the Muslim status on her new identity card.
Malaysian law requires all Muslims to be declared as such on their identity cards; the religion of non-Muslims, however, is not specified.
When challenged, the NRD said it could not change Joy’s religious status without a declaration from the Islamic law (sharia) court that she had become an “apostate.”
Conversion out of Islam (“apostasy”) is either forbidden or regarded as a criminal offense under most state Islamic laws. In Malaysia, “apostates” may be fined, detained and imprisoned.
For this reason, many Christian converts in Malaysia choose to remain secret converts.
Joy, insisting that as a Christian she was no longer subject to the sharia court, appealed the decision; but the High Court and the Court of Appeal repeatedly dismissed her applications on the grounds that the sharia court had not approved her renunciation of Islam.
Finally, on April 13, the Federal Court granted Joy permission to appeal the government’s decision. The court said there were “novel issues” to be argued in the case and that the matter was of public interest.
When the case returned to court on June 28, it sparked heated debate in the Malaysian press. Joy and her lawyer received death threats, eventually prompting Joy to go into hiding.
In mid-August, Joy’s mother made a public appeal through local media outlet Utusan Malaysia, saying, “Ali, come back and return to the path. This is my wish and hope before I perform umrah [pilgrimage].”
Following the media uproar, Chief Justice Tun Ahmad Fairuz Sheikh Abdul Halim announced today that the Federal Court would not rush into making a decision.
“We have to consider the submissions of many parties,” he told reporters.
The case is widely regarded as a watershed for religious freedom in Malaysia. If the court orders the NRD to drop the word “Islam” from Joy’s identity card, the move would affirm the supremacy of the secular constitution.
Orthodox Muslims favor a status quo decision, however, affirming the supremacy of Islam.
“If they rule against Lina Joy, the whole question of religious liberty – the freedom of conscience, choice, expression and thought of an individual – will be greatly affected,” the Rev. Wong Kim Kong, secretary general of the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship of Malaysia, told reporters.
While some Muslim groups support more freedom for would-be converts, other groups are highly resistant. One group of Malaysian lawyers met on July 13 to establish a new association, Lawyers in Defense of Islam, to fight any loss of jurisdiction for the sharia court.
The Defenders of Islam (Front Pembela Islam, or FPI) is also planning a nationwide campaign to counter the use of civil courts as a “way out of Islam,” according to Asia News.
Fearing civil unrest, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi on July 25 ordered all public debate on religious issues – including forums organized by the 13-member Article 11 coalition – to cease immediately. (See Compass Direct, “Protestors Sabotage Religious Rights Forum in Malaysia,” June 28.)
On Monday (August 21), the prime minister also recommended that four states that have not yet adopted laws to prevent the spread of other faiths among Muslims should draft them as soon as possible, the Bernama news agency reported. Those states are the Federal Territories, Penang, Sabah and Sarawak.
Some news reports state that Joy became a Christian in 1998, as some religious traditions or denominations hold that conversion is not complete until baptism. Joy became a Christian in 1990, but was not baptized until 1998; hence the discrepancy in some reports.
Right to Convert
The key issue in Joy’s case is the right of Islamic courts to have sole jurisdiction in cases of conversion out of Islam.
Sulaiman Abdullah, representing the Federal Territory Religious Council against Joy, argued in court that “apostasy” and conversion clearly qualify as “Muslim affairs,” to be decided by the sharia court.
Sulaiman also said Muslims could not enter and leave Islam as freely as the adherents of other religions.
In response, Cyrus Das, Joy’s counsel, argued that Malaysia’s constitution placed secularism before Islamic law. “Article 3 does not make Islam the governing law,” Das said.
Article 3 states that “Islam is the religion of the Federation; but other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony in any part of the Federation.”
Senior federal counsel Umi Kalthum Abd Majid, representing the government and the NRD, insisted that Joy was not prohibited from renouncing her religion, according to the Malaysian Star.
“The issue,” Umi told the court, “is that, in order to renounce Islam, she must go to the proper channels as provided by law. She cannot renounce her religion, Islam, at will.”
Constitutional expert and professor Shad Saleem Faruqi summed up the dilemma facing the Federal Court in an interview published by the Malaysiakini newspaper in July. “This nation cannot be a secular state when Muslims are compelled to follow religious laws,” he said. “But at the same time, it is a secular state for non-Muslims. It is a complex situation.”
Copyright 2006 Compass Direct News