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The Lina Joy Case and Religious Freedom in Malaysia

22 August 2006

Malaysia has a complex legal system which combines Islamic Syariah law (as Shari'a Islamic law is called in Malaysia) and adat (local customary or traditional) with a quasi-secular constitution and common law. Syariah law applies to family and religious matters for Muslims. There is continuing debate in Malaysia about which form of law should have supremacy on the issue of religious freedom. Malaysia is a majority Muslim country, with ethnic Malays, who are officially defined as Muslim, comprising over 50% of the population. The total Muslim population is estimated at 60% of the total population. Christians are estimated at about 8%. Lina Joy, a convert from Islam to Christianity, is trying to get her change of religion officially recognised. The case will set an important precedent for Malaysian converts from Islam to Christianity, who need to be recognised officially as Christian in order to be free to marry a Christian, be buried as a Christian and raise their children as Christians.

Lina Joy, a resident of Kuala Lumpur, is currently awaiting the ruling of the Malaysian Federal Court (final court of appeal) on issues which will directly affect whether she will be able to officially change her religion from Islam to Christianity. Formerly called Azlina Jailani, she is an ethnic Malay who converted from Islam to Christianity in 1990, but since then has been unable to have the word Islam deleted from her identity card. As a result of her conversion she has already suffered imprisonment in a drug rehabilitation centre for men, where on one occasion she was caned on her back, in an effort to force her to return to Islam.

Lina Joy began her legal battle to change her official status in 2001 in a civil court. She tried to avoid having the matter handled by a Syariah court, arguing that Article 11 of the constitution guarantees the right of all citizens of Malaysia to choose their own religion. Islamic law (Syariah law) specifies the death sentence and other punishments for apostasy from Islam. However, a lower court ruled that civil law cannot have precedence over Syariah law in this case. A Syariah court would prohibit her from officially leaving Islam. Now she is waiting for the ruling of the Federal Court, which is the highest court in Malaysia.

This case has provoked extreme reactions amongst some Muslims. A poster has recently been circulated calling for the death of her lawyer, Malik Imtiaz Sarwar.

In tomorrow's communique we will discuss the impact of Lina Joy's case on the clash between secularism and Islamisation in Malaysia.