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Verdict: Malaysian Christians Fall Under Sharia Court Jurisdiction

Appeal to Civil Court Denied

This morning in Malaysia, the Federal Court, Malaysia's highest court, has dismissed an appeal by four Christians seeking legal recognition of their Christian faith. This dismissed essentially cedes jurisdiction for this case to the Sharia courts, where these Christians must ask for a surat murtad which translates to "letters of apostasy."

Three of the four were raised as Christians but converted to Islam in order to marry Muslims. Jenny Peter divorced her Muslim husband in 2006 and returned to Christianity. Salina Jau was divorced by her Muslim husband in 1992, and then she returned to Christianity. Tiong Choo Ting began to practice Christianity after his Muslim wife died in 2007.

The fourth person, Syarifah Nooraffyzza, is an ethnic Malay raised as a Muslim. According to the Malaysian Constitution, all ethnic Malays are Muslims - a principle upheld in the case of Lina Joy, who was denied her right to leave Islam in 2007 and convert to Christianity. Syarifah filed a document stating that she no longer practices Islam, and she was baptized in 2009, according to published reports. She is asking to change her identity card from Muslim to Christian and to change her name to Vanessa Elizabeth.

Now that their appeal has been dismissed, the Christians must seek the permission of the Sharia Court, and be granted a formal letter of apostasy in order to get legal recognition of their Christian faith.

Climate of Discrimination

Malaysia requires every person's ID card to show their religion, and uses that designation as the basis discriminating on the basis of religion. While much of the practical discrimination is against non-Muslim religious minorities, persons registered as Muslim also face enormous societal pressure to conform to Islamic norms and critically for the purposes of this case, are considered subject to the jurisdiction of Malaysia's Sharia courts.

In Malaysia children born to Muslim parents are considered to be Muslims, and a non-Muslim who wishes to marry a Muslim must first convert to Islam. Therefore because these four Christians are legally considered Muslim, anyone who marries them, and critically any children they might have are Muslim according to the law. This means that the children are expected to be raised as Muslims, cannot be entered into Christian schools, and face serious risks of persecution if they participate in church or other Christian activities.

Uncertain Future

Despite the decision of Malaysia's highest court, Jubilee Campaign has not been able to verify any instance of a Sharia court ever granting leave for a believer from a Muslims background, to get their conversion legally recognized. In the context of the current case, the Shari'a courts had previously stated that they were without jurisdiction to even issue such a letter. Ominously, the Federal Court characterized these believers actions as apostasy, and declared that the Sharia courts had jurisdiction on that basis.

It seems unlikely that any Sharia court, would grant such a letter. Even if they did, given the growing violence of Muslim groups in Malaysia including attacks on churches and church leaders, the consequences of being branded an apostate are enormous.

"It means that freedom of religion, which is a constitutional right and a matter for the civil court, is subservient to Islamic laws," one Christian human-rights campaigner said.

However, Muslim groups have criticized the constitution as something imposed on Malaysia during the colonial era. Islamists have gained significant power politically and used their legislative clout to increase the de jure levels of discrimination. While the final verdict is yet to be heard, the abdication of the civil court system on this issue, leaves the Christian community without effective access to justice on this issue.

While Malaysia tends to present itself as a moderate Muslim nation, the ugly truth is that the landscape is marred by vicious discrimination and growing danger of open violence.


(c) 2018 Jubilee Campaign

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