- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 27, 2007

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Lina Joy has been disowned by her family, shunned by friends and forced into hiding — all 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 on society 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.

Miss 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 column.

She appealed the decision to a civil court but was told she must take it to Islamic Shariah courts. Miss Joy, 42, has argued that she should not be bound by Shariah law because she is a Christian.

Subsequent appeals all ruled that the Shariah court should decide the case until it reached the highest court, the Federal Court, which will make the final decision on whether Muslims who renounce their faith still must answer to the country’s Islamic courts.

About 60 percent of Malaysia’s 26 million people are Malay Muslims, whose civil, family, marriage and personal rights are decided by Shariah courts. The minorities — ethnic Chinese, Indians and other smaller communities — are governed by civil courts.

The constitution does not say who has the final word in cases such as Miss Joy’s. If she loses her appeal and continues to insist she is a Christian, it could lead to charges of apostasy and a jail sentence.

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

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

The situation was muddied further by the constitution’s description of Malaysia as a secular state but recognition of Islam as the official religion.

Miss Joy’s case “will decide the space of religious freedom in Malaysia,” said Mr. Dawson. If she wins, “it means that the constitutionally guaranteed right of freedom of religion prevails. If she loses, that means the constitutional guarantee is subservient to Islamic restrictions,” he said.

Miss Joy’s decision to leave Islam sparked angry street protests by Muslim groups and led to e-mail death threats against Malik Imtiaz Sarwar, a Muslim lawyer supporting her. The widely circulated anonymous e-mail described him as a “traitor” to Islam and carried his picture with the caption “Wanted Dead.”

Proselytizing of Muslims is banned in Malaysia and apostasy is a crime punishable by fines and jail sentences. Offenders often are sent to prisonlike rehabilitation centers.

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