Malaysia's highest court has ruled that Christians converting from Islam cannot change their officially registered religion without permission from a sharia court, effectively leaving converts open to being prosecuted for apostasy.
The court ruled against four Christian converts from Sarawak (the only state in Malaysia where Christians are more numerous than Muslims) on 27 February 2018, who had requested to be able to remove their Muslim status from their compulsory identity cards. Although the panel of five judges admitted that state Islamic courts did not have formal jurisdiction over conversion, they ruled that it “could be implied” sharia courts could rule on those wishing to convert from Islam.
In appealing to a sharia court to change religion, converts will leave themselves open to prosecution for apostasy from Islam, which carries a three-year jail term.
The decision is a disappointing and regressive step for freedom of religion in Malaysia, which leaves Christian converts legally trapped as Muslims and therefore liable to be prosecuted under sharia law. It has also dashed hopes that Malaysia would ease conversion laws – in January, the high court had given a positive ruling in the case of two children who were registered as Muslims when their father converted to Islam and left his Hindi wife, overturning their “conversions”.
Classical Islam views apostasy as a very serious crime and all schools of sharia lay down a death sentence for adult men, with some applying the same for women.