In a landmark ruling last week a Malaysian court upheld the rights of a Christian to convert from Islam.
The judgment establishes a precedent in a country where religious conversions, particularly from Islam to Christianity, have been steeped in controversy.
The verdict reaffirms the supremacy of the Federal Constitution, which under Article 11 defends every Malaysian citizen’s right to freedom of religion.
For Rooney Rebit, the plaintiff, the decision could not have come at a more opportune time than in Holy Week: he was asking judicial authorities to declare that his belief in Jesus Christ was a fundamental human right.
The High Court in Kuching, Sarawak state, duly agreed. The judge, Yew Ken Jie, said: “He is free to exercise his right of freedom to religion and he chose Christianity.”
Rebit was born into a Christian family in 1975 but his parents converted to Islam when he was eight years old. His Muslim name was Azmi Mohamad Azam Shah.
In 1999, Rebit embraced Christianity and was baptised.
In her decision, Judge Yew ruled that Rebit could not be considered to have officially professed Islam, because it was not his choice to embrace the religion. But when he became a Christian at the age of 24, he was mature enough to make a conscious decision.
Cases of conversion in Malaysia have been plagued by official dissension and charges of apostasy by Muslim authorities challenging verdicts by secular courts in Sharia tribunals.
The most prominent suit involved Lina Joy who converted from Islam to Christianity in 1998 at the age of 26; her application to have her conversion legally recognised by Malaysian courts was rejected in 2007 after a six-year legal battle.
There have been other cases where one parent has converted children born into a different faith community to Islam, when the appeals of the other parent, usually the mother, have been brushed aside by Islamic authorities who espouse the supremacy of Islam.
In this video, Malaysian lawyer Andrew Khoo discuss the recent case of a Hindu mother who challenged her husband’s ‘unilateral’ conversion of their two children to Islam: in failing to rule on this, the Federal court left the issue unresolved for Malaysia’s minority faiths.
In a country with two parallel legal systems, appeals to secular courts to right such wrongs are inevitably referred to the Sharia authorities, where non-Muslim lawyers are barred from practising.
In Rebit’s case the significant difference was that he was not challenging his conversion to Islam; for if he had done so, the case would have had to be judged by the Sharia court – because secular courts have ruled that they do not have jurisdiction on Islamic issues.
Rebit, in his application, asked that he be officially declared a Christian, and for the Sarawak Islamic Religious Department and Sarawak Islamic Council to release him from the Muslim faith. He also wanted the court to compel the Government’s National Registration Department to change his name and religion on his identity card and its records.
Sarawak state’s Islamic religious authorities did not object to issuing the letter releasing him from his faith, but the registration department had insisted on a letter of release and order from the Sharia Court. But Judge Yew, in her decision, ordered the National Registration Department to make the changes to Rebit’s’s identity card.
She held that Rebit’s case was not one of jurisdiction, but raised constitutional issues regarding his right to religious freedom. “He does not need a Sharia court order to release him from Islam, because freedom of religion is his constitutional right and only he can exercise that right.”
She added: “His conversion to the Muslim faith was not of his own volition but by virtue of his parents’ conversion when he was a minor. He is not challenging the validity of his conversion as a minor. But having become a major, he is free to exercise his right of freedom to religion and he chose Christianity. The National Registration Department had not acted fairly towards the applicant by insisting on a letter of release and order from the Sharia Court.”
Ruling upholds constitutional rights
Rebit’s’s lawyer, Chua Kuan Ching, welcomed the decision and hoped that the National Registration Department would not appeal the judgment. “In previous conversion cases involving minors, the courts did not go far enough to state what happens when the child reaches adulthood. So this is a different decision because the judge is saying that he has the right to religious freedom, according to the Constitution.”
The Association of Churches in Sarawak applauded the ruling for protecting the fundamental right to freedom of religion, especially “with Holy Week upon us and Easter nearing”:
“We call upon the Federal Government [in Kuala Lumpur] to honour and give effect to the guarantee of religious freedom as provided in the Malaysia Agreement [which formed the basis of Sarawak and Sabah state’s union with Malaysia] and uphold the constitutional rights and fundamental liberties accorded by the Federal Constitution to all citizens of Malaysia.”
Sisters in Islam, a civil society group committed to promoting democratic rights within the framework of Islam and universal human rights, also welcomed the decision. Their organisation, which has come under criticism from Islamic authorities for its opposition to attempts to prosecute Muslims for attempting to leave Islam, said the judgment reaffirmed the supremacy of the Federal Constitution.
“As such, it is our duty to honour these rights equally and fairly, without regard to race or religion. Where our legal system provides for the right of conversion, it should not be the case that in reality the practice of these rights are denied, or made nearly impossible, to certain religions or races,” it said in a statement issued yesterday [Monday, March 28th 2016].
It also added: “Acting in the interest of our country and its people does not conflict with the principles of Islam as Islam is a religion of compassion and tolerance … Faith cannot be imposed through enforcement. Instead, faith is contingent upon free will. Islam itself means submission to the will of God – not the will of men.” The organisation said the judgment was a reminder to all Malaysians of their right to practise their faith without coercion from the state.
MALAYSIAN LAWYER REFLECTS ON ‘ALLAH’ CASE IMPLICATIONS FOR CHRISTIANS
The latest ruling offers relief to the beleaguered Christian community, who make up nine per cent of the 30 million population. They have increasingly felt their faith under attack; in recent years Bibles in the Malay language have been seized, churches and the Catholic Herald newspaper barred from using the word ‘Allah’ to describe God, and places of worship desecrated.
In this video, a Malaysian lawyer discusses the recent ‘Allah’ case. Andrew Khoo represented the Council of Churches of Malaysia in the long-running case.
For about eight years, Malaysia has been ruled by the right-wing Barisan Nasional party, led by Prime Minister Najib Razak, who managed to win a second term in 2013, though with a narrow margin, pitting Muslims against minorities. Andrew Khoo, an elected member of the Malaysia Bar Council and co-chair of the country’s Human Rights Committee, explained what Razak’s win means for Christians and described the overall religious freedom scene in the country before this latest Sarawak case.