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28 May 2007

Christian Convert Fights Malaysian Law

Lina Joy has been disowned by her family, shunned by friends and forced into hiding - all because she renounced Islam and embraced Christianity in Muslim-majority Malaysia.

Now, after a seven-year legal struggle, Malaysia's highest court will decide on Wednesday whether her constitutional right to choose her religion overrides an Islamic law that prohibits Malay Muslims from leaving Islam.

Either way, the verdict will have profound implications on society in a country where Islam is increasingly conflicting with minority religions, challenging Malaysia's reputation as a moderate Muslim and multicultural nation that guarantees freedom of worship.

Joy's case began in 1998 when, after converting, she applied for a name change on her government identity card. The National Registration Department obliged but refused to drop Muslim from the religion column.

She appealed the decision to a civil court but was told she must take it to Islamic Shariah courts. But Joy, 42, has argued that she should not be bound by Shariah law because she is a Christian.

Subsequent appeals all ruled that the Shariah court should decide the case until it reached the highest court, the Federal Court, which will make the final decision on whether Muslims who renounce their faith must still answer to the country's Islamic courts.

About 60 percent of Malaysia's 26 million people are Malay Muslims, whose civil, family, marriage and personal rights are decided by Shariah courts. The minorities - the ethnic Chinese, Indians and other smaller communities - are governed by civil courts.

But the constitution does not say who has the final say in cases such as Joy's when Islam confronts Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism or other religions.

If Joy loses her appeal and continues to insist she is a Christian, it could lead to charges of apostasy and a possible jail sentence.

"Our country is at a crossroad," Joy's lawyer, Benjamin Dawson, told The Associated Press. "Are we evolving into an Islamic state or are we going to maintain the secular character of the constitution?"

The founding fathers of Malaysia left the constitution deliberately vague, unwilling to upset any of the three ethnic groups dominant at the time of independence from Britain 50 years ago, when building a peaceful multiracial nation was more important.

The situation was muddied further with the constitution describing Malaysia as a secular state but recognizing Islam as the official religion.

Joy's case "will decide the space of religious freedom in Malaysia," said Dawson. If she wins, "it means that the constitutionally guaranteed right of freedom of religion prevails. If she loses, that means the constitutional guarantee is subservient to Islamic restrictions," he said.

Joy's decision to leave Islam sparked angry street protests by Muslim groups and led to e-mail death threats against Malik Imtiaz Sarwar, a Muslim lawyer supporting her. The widely circulated anonymous e-mail described him as a "traitor" to Islam and carried his picture with the caption "Wanted Dead."

Proselytizing of Muslims is banned in Malaysia and apostasy is regarded a crime punishable by fines and jail sentences. Offenders are often sent to prison-like rehabilitation centers.

Many Islamic nations have similar laws. Saudi Arabia neither permits conversion from Islam nor allows other religions in the kingdom. The case of an Afghan man who faced the death penalty for converting from Islam to Christianity caused an outcry in the United States and other nations, and Afghanistan released him.

Even Jordan, considered one of the most tolerant countries in the Middle East, convicted a Muslim man for converting to Christianity several years ago, taking away his right to work and annulling his marriage.

By law, all Malays have to be Muslim and few convert. Those who do prefer to keep it quiet.

Some seek legal approval for their action, but civil courts invariably refer the case back to the Shariah courts.

Joy was born Azlina Jailani and began going to church in 1990. She was baptized eight years later. She then applied for the changes to her identity card.

When authorities refused her request to drop Muslim from the religion designation, Joy went to the High Court in May 2000 but was told to go to Shariah courts. She challenged the decision in the Court of Appeal but lost, and took it to Malaysia's highest court in 2005.

The hearing in Federal Court ended in July 2006, but it has taken the judges until now to declare a verdict, saying a careful examination was necessary because of the sensitivity of the case.

Meanwhile, Joy has been disowned by her family and forced to quit her computer sales job after clients threatened to withdraw their business. Joy and her ethnic Indian Catholic boyfriend, known only as Johnson, went into hiding early 2006 amid fears they could be targeted by Muslim zealots, Dawson said.

"Lina is very steadfast in her belief. She is aware that her chances (of winning) are slim but is putting her faith in God. She is just an ordinary Malaysian girl who wants to lead an ordinary life."

Joy has never made any public appearances and has rejected requests for interviews.

In a sworn statement to a lower court in 2000, she said she felt "more peace in my spirit and soul after having become a Christian."

Muslim groups, however, say Joy is questioning the position of Islam by taking the case to the civil courts.

"It is not about one person, it is about challenging the Islamic system in Malaysia," said Muslim Youth Movement President Yusri Mohammad, who set up a coalition of 80 Islamic groups to oppose Joy's case.

"By doing this openly, she is encouraging others to do the same. It may open the floodgates to other Muslims because once it is a precedent, it becomes an option."

If Joy wins her case, he warned, it could rend Malaysia's multiracial fabric by fomenting Muslim anger against minorities, who have largely lived in peace with Malays. There has been no racial violence in the country since the May 1969 Malay-Chinese riots that killed dozens.

Dawson said several apostasy cases are on hold in the civil courts, pending a verdict in Joy's case.

"Both the man in the street and lawyers want to know once and for all how to draw the line between civil and Shariah courts - whether Muslims can convert and if yes, what are the procedures," he said.


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