Malaysia: Historic ruling; Shariah court allows convert to return to Buddhism

Malaysian Insider
The Penang Syariah High Court has allowed a Muslim convert to return to her original faith of Buddhism, setting a precedent that could ease religious minorities' worries about their legal rights.
Lawyers said the court's verdict might be the first time in recent memory that a convert has been permitted to legally renounce Islam.
A rising number of disputes about religious conversions has sparked anxiety among minorities — predominantly Buddhist, Christian and Hindu — because in the past courts virtually always ruled against people seeking to leave Islam.

The Penang Syariah court, however, granted Siti Fatimah Tan Abdullah's (Tan Ean Hung) request to be declared a non-Muslim. She embraced Islam in 1998 because she wanted to marry an Iranian, but claimed she never truly practised the religion.

"I am very happy," Siti, a 39-year-old ethnic Chinese cake seller, said. "I want to go to the temple to pray and give thanks."

The Syariah court, which governs Muslims' personal conduct and religious lives, ruled that Siti's husband and Islamic authorities failed to give her proper religious advice.

"So you can't blame her for her ignorance of the teachings and wanting to convert out," said Ahmad Munawir Abdul Aziz, a lawyer for the Islamic Affairs Council in Penang.

Siti must still ask the registration department to have her name and religion changed back on her identification papers. She was not expected to face any problems, because the court ruled in her favour.

"It's a landmark decision," said Siti's lawyer Ahmad Jailani Abdul Ghani.

Siti filed her request in 2006 after her husband left her. She was subsequently ordered to undergo counselling to ensure she truly understood Islam.

Malaysia's most high-profile conversion case was that of Lina Joy, a woman who was born to Muslim parents and failed to get the Federal Court, the top civil court, to recognise her conversion to Christianity last year.

Malaysia has a dual court system with civil courts for non-Muslims and Syariah courts for Muslims. In interfaith disputes involving Islam, the Syariah courts typically get the last word, which has upset non-Muslims who fear they cannot get justice in such courts.

Court disputes that ended in favour of Muslims have caused minorities to worry that their rights have become subordinate to those of ethnic Malay Muslims, who make up nearly 60 per cent of Malaysia's 27 million people.

Political observers say religious grievances contributed to the governing coalition's poor performance in the March general election, in which the coalition lost its two-thirds majority in Parliament. — AP

8 May 2008