Malaysian court rules Christian woman can't remove Islam from ID

Thursday, May 31, 2007

A Malaysian Christian woman who has been fighting a six-year legal battle to have the word Islam removed from her national identification card has lost an appeal with the Malaysian Federal Court. The three-judge panel rejected the appeal in a 2–1 decision on Tuesday in Putrajaya.

Lina Joy, 42, was born Azlina Jailani to Malay parents, and was raised as a Muslim. Malaysia's constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but by law, all ethnic Malays are Muslim.

Joy converted to Christianity at age 26, and after some bureaucratic difficulties had her named legally changed in 1999. However, on her MyKad national ID, the National Registration Department retained her stated religion as Islam. In order to have her religion changed, the National Registration Department said Joy would have to obtain a certificate of apostasy from the Muslim Sharia Court.

I am hoping that my case would have made a difference to the development of constitutional issues in the plight of many others.

—Lina Joy

But under Sharia law, Muslims are not allowed to convert, nor may they marry outside their religion. But since she is no longer a Muslim, Joy has said she should not be bound by that law.

She applied to Malaysia's High Court in April 2001 to legally renounce her religion, but was refused, with the court saying the issue must be decided by the Sharia Court. The Court of Appeal rejected the case in September 2005.

In Tuesday's ruling at the Palace of Justice, Justice Ahmad Fairuz and Federal Court Judge Alauddin Mohd Sheriff rejected the appeal, while Justice Richard Malanjum dissented. The hearing was the final legal step Joy could take, although her lawyer, Benjamin Dawson, said he was considering filing for a review of the judgment.

Joy received the verdict with "great sorrow", the New Straits Times reported.

"I am disappointed that the Federal Court is not able to vindicate a simple but important fundamental right that exists in all persons; namely, the right to believe in the religion of one's choice and equally important, the right to marry a person of one's choice and to raise a family in the Malaysia context," Joy was quoted in a statement from her lawyer, and published in The Star. "The Federal Court has not only denied me that right but to all Malaysians who value fundamental freedoms.

"I am hoping that my case would have made a difference to the development of constitutional issues in the plight of many others."

Joy has since been disowned by her family, and forced to quit her job. A Muslim lawyer who supported her case received death threats. Joy went into hiding last year, and is believed to be living outside Malaysia. Now, it's not likely she will return, The Star reported. "It would extremely difficult to exercise freedom of conscience in the present environment," she was quoted as by the paper.

Muslim groups welcomed the verdict, while rights groups condemned it.

"It's clearly justified and fair," Yusri Muhd, president of The Defenders of Islam Coalition, was quoted as saying by Channel NewsAsia. "We hope that we've seen the last of such an attempt."

Ivy Josiah of the Women's Aid Organization said was "deeply disappointed" by the ruling, she said her group was encouraged by the dissenting judgment "which means there's still light at the end of the tunnel."

The lone dissenting justice, Chief Judge of Sabah and Sarawak Richard Malanjum, wrote: "To expect the appellant to apply for a certificate of apostasy - when to do so would likely expose her to a range of offenses under the Islamic law - is, in my view, unreasonable."