KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – Malaysia’s highest court will rule next week on whether a Muslim has the right to convert to another faith, lawyers said on Friday, in a test case that could shake society in the mainly Muslim country.
The Federal Court, the country’s highest civil judicial authority, will announce on May 30 if it has decided to acknowledge the decision of Lina Joy to convert to Christianity and give up Islam, the faith she was born into.
“We’re all awaiting with bated breath a case which has a great impact on the course that the country will take,” Benjamin Dawson, Joy’s lawyer, told Reuters.
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Islam is Malaysia’s official religion, so Muslims who decide to switch faiths pose a tricky legal question for the government of the multiracial, multi-religious nation.
Ethnic Malays, who make up just over half of Malaysia’s 26 million people, are deemed Muslims from birth.
Constitutionally, freedom of religion is guaranteed. But in reality, conversion out of Islam falls within the ambit of sharia or Islamic courts. And sharia law prescribes fines or jail for those who renounce Islam, effectively ruling out the option.
Muslims who leave Islam end up in legal limbo, unable to register their new religious affiliations or legally marry non-Muslims. Many keep quiet about their choice or emigrate.
Lina Joy, now in her early 40s, was born Azlina Jailani and brought up as a Muslim but at the age of 26 decided to become a Christian.
In 1999, the National Registration Department allowed her to change the name in her identity card to Lina Joy but the entry for her religion remained “Islam.”
Until the entry is deleted, she cannot legally marry outside the Muslim faith. The legal wrangling began when she took the department to court over the anomaly.
But a ruling against Joy could also inflame opinion among non-Muslims, many already aggrieved over what they see as the gradual encroachment of Islamic law into civil society.
About 60 percent of Malaysians follow Islam, according to the 2000 census, with Buddhists making up another 19 percent.
Christians account for nine percent, Hindus six percent and Confucianism, Taoism and other Chinese religions two percent.