Malaysia’s top court rejects Lina Joy's plea to be recognised as Christian

2 June, 2007:

In a landmark judgment, Malaysia’s top secular court has rejected a woman’s appeal to be recognised as a Christian.

Lina Joy, 42, who was born Azlina Jailani, had applied for a change of name on her government identity card. The National Registration Department obliged, but refused to drop Muslim from the ‘religion’ column, the Associated Press has reported.

Lina filed an appeal in a civil court but was told that she must take it to Islamic shariah court. But Lina argued that she should not be bound by shariah law because she is a Christian.

A three-judge Federal Court panel ruled by a 2-1 majority that only the Islamic shariah court has the power to allow her to remove the word ‘Islam’ from the religion category on her government identity card.

Judge Richard Malanjum was the only one on the panel who sided with Lina Joy, saying it was “unreasonable” to ask her to turn to the shariah court because she could face criminal prosecution there. (Apostasy is a crime punishable by fines and jail sentences in Malaysia, considered as a moderate Islamic country. Offenders are often sent to prison-like rehabilitation centres.)

About 60% 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.

However, the Constitution of Malaysia does not say who has the final say in cases such as Lina Joy’s when Islam confronts Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism or other religions.

According to the Associated Press report, the founding fathers of Malaysia had apparently left the Constitution vague, reluctant to upset any of the three ethnic groups dominant at the time of independence from Britain 50 years ago.

The Constitution was later amended by describing Malaysia as a secular state but recognising Islam as the official religion.

Lina Joy, who began attending church in 1990 and was baptised eight years later, has been disowned by her family and has said she was forced to quit her computer sales job after clients threatened to withdraw their business.

She and her ethnic Indian Catholic boyfriend went into hiding in early 2006 amid fears they could be targeted by Muslim zealots, Lina Joy’s lawyer said.

Lina’s case sparked furious street protests by Muslim groups, and death threats were sent via email to the Muslim lawyer supporting her.

Her case is the most prominent in a string of recent religious disputes, some involving custody of children born to parents of different faiths, and one involving a deceased Hindu man who converted to Islam without his family’s knowledge and whom Islamic authorities ordered to be buried as a Muslim.




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