The highest court in Malaysia yesterday rejected a Muslim-born woman’s appeal to be recognised as a Christian, ending a six-year legal battle that will heighten concerns over discrimination of the country’s religious minorities.
Lina Joy, 42, had fought the decisions of Malaysia’s lower courts in an effort to have the word “Islam” removed from her identity card, arguing that the constitution guaranteed her religious freedom.
But the panel of three judges decided, in a majority verdict, that it had no power to intervene in cases of apostasy. These cases fall under the jurisdiction of Malaysia’s Sharia courts, which run in tandem with the country’s civil courts.
However, it has never been made clear which branch of the court takes precedence. The Malaysian constitution guarantees freedom of worship, but ethnic Malays must be Muslim by law. “She cannot simply, at her own whim, enter or leave her religion,” Judge Ahmad Fairuz said during yesterday’s ruling. “She must follow rules.”
But Judge Richard Malanjum, the only non-Muslim on the panel, said it was “unreasonable” to ask Ms Joy to turn to the Sharia court as she could face criminal prosecution because abandoning Islam is punishable by a fine or jail. Critics of the verdict expressed dismay and said it failed to uphold the legal rights of Malaysians.
Two-hundred Muslim protesters who gathered in a prayer vigil outside the court yesterday greeted the verdict with cries of “Allahu Akbar” (God is great).
Islam is the official religion in Malaysia, where 60% of the country’s 27 million people are ethnic Malay.
The woman, born Azlina Jailani, started attending church in 1990 and was baptised eight years later. She was given permission to change her name, but “Islam” remained as her religion on her identity card.