A Malaysian woman who converted to Christianity might be jailed for apostasy, or the rejection of her religion, after the Muslim-majority country's highest court ruled that she does not have a constitutional right to convert from Islam to another religion - writes Michele Green.
Lina Joy has battled for seven years to have her conversion recognised as legal. She finally took her case to a Malaysian Federal Court, which decided in a 2-1 majority decision on 30 May that she could not remove "Islam" from the religion category of her government identity card despite her conversion to Christianity in 1998.
"She cannot simply at her own whims enter or leave her religion. She must follow rules," said Chief Justice Ahmad Fairuz Sheikh Abdul Halim. "Apostasy is a matter linked to Islamic laws … civil courts cannot interfere."
The court ruling means Joy, who is believed to be in hiding and did not appear at court, will have to take her case to an Islamic, or Sharia, court which has the jurisdiction to impose prison sentences on those it finds guilt of apostasy. It was also a major setback to her hopes of marrying the Christian man she loves.
The landmark ruling tested Malaysia's claims to offer freedom of religion to its diverse population which is 60 percent Muslim but also includes Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and other faiths. Islam is Malaysia's official religion.
"This decision reflects a growing trend of decisions in the courts where civil courts are abdicating their responsibility of providing legal redress to individuals who only seek to profess and live their religion according to their conscience," said Roman Catholic Bishop Paul Tan Chee Ing, chairperson of the Christian Federation of Malaysia
Judge Richard Malanjum, the only non-Muslim on the panel, voted against the decision, saying it was "unreasonable" to Joy her to turn to the Islamic court because it could lead to her being convicted of apostasy.
The case was the latest in a series of legal disputes that have raised questions about the country's freedom of religion. They include several high profile custody disputes of children born to parents of different religions as well as burials - including the case of an army officer who was buried as a Muslim despite protests from his Hindu wife.
"Freedom of religion here is an illusion," said Leonard Teoh, a lawyer for the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism.
[With grateful acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches]