- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 30, 2007

2:31 p.m.

PUTRAJAYA, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysia’s top civil court today rejected a woman’s appeal to be recognized as a Christian, in a landmark case that tested the limits of religious freedom in this moderate Islamic country.

Lina Joy, who was born Azlina Jailani, had 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, 43, argued that she should not be bound by Shariah law because she is a Christian.

A three-judge Federal Court panel ruled by a 2-1 majority that only the Islamic Shariah court has the power to allow her to remove the word “Islam” from the religion category on her government identity card.

“She cannot simply at her own whims enter or leave her religion,” Judge Ahmad Fairuz said. “She must follow rules.”

Judge Richard Malanjum, the only non-Muslim on the panel, sided with Miss Joy, saying it was “unreasonable” to ask her to turn to the Shariah court because she could face criminal prosecution there.

Apostasy is a crime punishable by fines and jail sentences. Offenders are often sent to prisonlike rehabilitation centers.

Miss Joy was not present at the hearing.

Her lawyer, Benjamin Dawson, said Miss Joy is “extremely disappointed” with the verdict.

“That to Lina is a denial of her constitutional right to decide the religion of her choice,” Mr. Dawson told Associated Press.

She has not decided on the next course of action, as her options are limited, he said. Miss Joy can choose to remain a Muslim, appear before the Shariah court or emigrate.

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 — the ethnic Chinese, Indians and other smaller communities — are governed by civil courts.

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

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

The situation was muddied further with the constitution describing Malaysia as a secular state but recognizing Islam as the official religion.

Miss Joy, who began going to church in 1990 and was baptized eight years later, has been disowned by her family and has said she was forced to quit her computer sales job after clients threatened to withdraw their business.

She and her ethnic Indian Catholic boyfriend went into hiding in early 2006 amid fears they could be targeted by Muslim zealots, Miss Joy’s lawyer has said.

Miss Joy’s case sparked angry street protests by Muslim groups and led to e-mail death threats against a Muslim lawyer supporting her.

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