Updated at 7:17 p.m. ET on 2018-02-27
Malaysia’s highest court on Tuesday ruled that only the country’s Sharia courts can hear cases on conversion from Islam, dismissing the petitions of four Muslims to be allowed to be Christians under the nation’s laws.
In a unanimous decision, the five-judge Federal Court’s panel, which included a non-Muslim member, ruled that the Sarawak Sharia court was the proper court for apostasy cases.
Zulkefli Ahmad Makinudin, Malaysia’s Court of Appeal president and panel chief, said that while there was no provision in Sarawak’s religious laws for the state Sharia court to handle such cases, there was legislation to allow it.
“Sections 68 and 69 in the Sarawak Islamic Ordinance council can be used by the Sarawak Shariah Court to hear apostasy cases,” he said in the ruling.
Malaysia has a dual legal system where its Islamic courts mostly hear cases of family disputes and inheritance involving Muslims. Islamic courts run parallel to the nation’s civil courts, but non-Muslims have no right to appear during trial.
“Apostasy is a sensitive matter among Muslims and the way to deal with it is embodied in the Islamic law. The Federal Court’s decision is considered significant because it recognizes the power of the Sharia court,” political analyst Azmi Hassan told BenarNews.
“Otherwise, when apostasy cases are judged in civil courts there would be a possibility of a decision not in accordance with Sharia requirements and this scenario would not be limited to apostasy but also other matters relating to Islam,” he said.
Tuesday’s decision means the four appellants – Salina Jau Abdullah, Jenny Peter, Mohd Syafiq Abdullah (alias Tiong Choo Ting) and Syarifah Nooraffyzza Wan Hosen – will have to go to the Sharia court to hear their cases.
Syarifah Nooraffyzza was born a Muslim, while the other three converted to Islam to marry Muslims. They renounced the religion after their spouses died or their marriages ended in divorce.
The legal battle began in Sarawak’s high courts in 2015 when the four petitioned to have their conversions from Islam to Christianity officially recognized by having their names and their religion changed on their national identification cards.
Government lawyers objected on the ground that the civil high court had no jurisdiction over apostasy or religious cases that were usually reviewed by Sharia courts.
Because their official documents identify them as Muslims, the four petitioners must first obtain Letters of Apostasy from a Sharia court before they can change their legal identities.
But the Sharia Court in Sarawak created a dilemma for converts to Christianity after it ruled that it had the authority to approve conversions to Islam, but not from Islam to any other religion.
Tuesday’s ruling also means that the Sharia Court would act in accordance with the Federal Court’s decision.
Critic speaks out
The ruling strengthened critics’ arguments that the lack of religious freedom in the Muslim-majority country violates one of the principles of the Malaysian constitution.
More than 60 percent of Malaysia’s 32 million citizens are Muslims and religious matters are sensitive, even in Sarawak where Muslims are in the minority.
Human rights activist Peter John Jaban called such religious laws to be scrapped, saying such matters should be a personal and family choice.
“We do not want our beloved country to be embroiled in a conflict arising from religion,” Jaban said, reacting to the court decision.
Hata Wahari in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.