Malaysian Christian Tests Islamic Law

By Eileen Ng
Associated Press
Monday, May 28, 2007

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, May 27 -- Lina Joy has been disowned by her family, shunned by friends and forced into hiding because she renounced Islam and embraced Christianity in Muslim-majority Malaysia.

Now, after a seven-year legal struggle, Malaysia's highest court will decide on Wednesday whether her constitutional right to choose her religion overrides an Islamic law that prohibits Malay Muslims from leaving Islam.

Either way, the verdict will have profound implications in a country where Islam is increasingly conflicting with minority religions, challenging Malaysia's reputation as a moderate Muslim and multicultural nation that guarantees freedom of worship.

Joy's case began in 1998 when, after converting, she applied for a name change on her government identity card. The National Registration Department obliged but refused to drop Muslim from the religion category.

Joy, who was born Azlina Jailani, appealed the decision to a civil court but was told she must take it to sharia courts, which handle Islamic issues. But Joy, 42, has argued that she should not be bound by Islamic law because she is a Christian.

Subsequent appeals ruled that the sharia court should decide the case. The highest court, the Federal Court, will make the final decision on whether Muslims who renounce their faith must still answer to Islamic courts.

About 60 percent of Malaysia's 25 million citizens are Muslim, and their civil, family, marriage and personal rights are decided by sharia courts. The minorities -- the ethnic Chinese, Indians and other smaller communities -- are governed by civil courts.

But the constitution does not say who has the final word in cases such as Joy's, when Islam confronts Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism or other religions.

If Joy loses her appeal and continues to insist she is a Christian, it could lead to charges of apostasy and a possible jail sentence.

"Our country is at a crossroad," said Benjamin Dawson, Joy's attorney. "Are we evolving into an Islamic state or are we going to maintain the secular character of the constitution?"

The founding fathers of Malaysia deliberately left the constitution vague, unwilling to upset any of the three ethnic groups dominant at the time of independence from Britain 50 years ago, when the goal was to build a peaceful, multiracial country.

Joy began going to church in 1990 and was baptized eight years later. Joy and her ethnic Indian Catholic boyfriend, known only as Johnson, went into hiding in early 2006 amid fears they could be targeted by Muslim zealots, Dawson said.

Joy's decision to convert has sparked angry street protests and led to e-mail death threats against a Muslim lawyer supporting her.

Some Muslim groups say Joy is questioning the position of Islam by taking the case to civil courts.

"It is not about one person, it is about challenging the Islamic system in Malaysia," said Muslim Youth Movement President Yusri Mohammad, who set up a coalition of 80 Islamic groups to oppose Joy's case. "By doing this openly, she is encouraging others to do the same. It may open the floodgates to other Muslims, because once it is a precedent, it becomes an option."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company