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The decision by the High Court in Sarawak last week knocked down a decade’s long government policy that has made it tough for converts to Islam to renounce the religion without the consent of an Islamic court.
The 24 March 2016 ruling is considered a landmark as conversion and apostasy in the predominantly Muslim country is viewed as sensitive.
The Association of Churches in Sarawak praised the decision as a ratification of the fundamental right to freedom of religion in Malaysia.
“We are thankful to the Kuching High Court for coming to a fair and just decision in accordance with the law. We call upon the federal government to honor and give effect to the guarantee of religious freedom as provided in the Malaysia Agreement and uphold the constitutional rights and fundamental liberties accorded by the federal constitution to all citizens of Malaysia,” the association said in a press statement.
The Malaysia Agreement of 1963 united North Borneo, Sarawak and for a short while Singapore with Malaya to form Malaysia.
The landmark judgment revolves around Roneey Anak Rebit, 41, from a village in Sarawak who was born a Christian but was converted to Islam by his parents when he was about 10 years old and renamed Azmi Mohamad Azam.
He was re-baptized as a Christian in 1999 and applied to the National Registration Department to have the Islamic classification and his Muslim name removed from his identity card and from all his records in their registry.
The National Registration Department, which issues identity cards to all citizens and permanent residents, has consistently declined to change the religious status of holders on such cards without the consent of the Islamic or Shariah court.
The government’s contention has always been that only the Shariah court can decide on anything to do with Muslims and Islam making it near impossible for converts to practice a faith of their choice.
Non-Muslim groups say that gaining a letter of release from Islam from the Shariah court is an unreasonable condition when the State Shariah Court itself has stated that it has no jurisdiction to issue such a letter.
Roneey took his case to the civil courts to force the government to change the details on his identity card.
High Court judge Yew Jen Kie of the Kuching High Court ruled that Roneey should not be deemed a Muslim and his decision to revert to Christianity was within his rights as he was converted when he was a minor.
The Muslim group, Sisters in Islam said the decision was in line with the principles of Islam as the religion promotes compassion and tolerance.
“This judgment reaffirms the supremacy of the Federal Constitution, which under Article 11 defends every Malaysian citizen’s right to freedom of religion,” Sisters in Islam said in a statement.
A local priest, who requested anonymity, voiced the fears of Christians in Sabah said: “For me, there is some good news in this but for how long? I hope that this can be a precedent that our lawyers can refer to for similar cases in future.”
Steven Chu, a social worker, said that while the ruling can be viewed as a turning point for the scores trapped in what he calls “conversion limbo” there was no guarantee that it would be allowed to stand.
He pointed to the recent Indira Ghandi versus Mohd Riduan case on the unilateral conversion of three children to Islam by their father.
Unilateral conversions of children by parents, sometimes in the midst of divorce, have been a contentious issue for several years.
The federal government announced that planned law reforms to address the unilateral conversion of minors was ready but has not set a date on when it will be tabled in Malaysia’s parliament. – ucanews.com