Shades of Islamic State Worry Bishops in Malaysia

Church Urging Freedom of Religion

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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, SEPT. 9, 2004 ( For months Malaysians have been talking about a case concerning the denial of religious freedom.

Shamala Sathyyaseelan, a non-Muslim mother of two, asked Malaysia’s highest court why her children were forcibly converted to Islam without her consent and knowledge.

The Supreme Court sidestepped the case by declaring it was incompetent and referred it to the Shariah Court. The woman’s lawyers objected arguing that the Shariah, or Islamic law, tribunal does not have jurisdiction over non-Muslims. In the gap between two competing legal systems Sathyyaseelan is alone, her case in limbo.

In this Southeast Asian country of 23.5 million, two legal systems coexist: one based on the country’s federal constitution and civil courts; the other framed by Shariah law and applied in principle only to Muslims.

In Sathyyaseelan’s case, with the Supreme Court washing its hands, the Shariah Court is likely to uphold the father’s claim and sanction the children’s conversion to Islam.

Sathyyaseelan’s case has been taken up by Malaysia’s Catholic bishops, according to the AsiaNews agency. In a recently released paper, the bishops stress how in mixed marriages the weaker — that is, non-Muslim — party faces most of the problems.

Although formally protected under the law, non-Muslims must accept the decisions of Islamic courts which inevitably privilege Muslim applicants.

Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy and a federation. Under the constitution Islam is the federation’s official religion, but other religions can «be practiced in peace and harmony.»

The document goes further in protecting religious freedom for it states that «no person shall be required to receive instruction in or take part in any ceremony or act of worship of a religion other than his own» and that «the religion of a person under the age of 18 years shall be decided by his parent or guardian.»

On the basis of these principles, Malaysia’s bishops maintain that «it is not in the best interests of the child» that a parent convert him, or do so without the knowledge of the other parent. Thus they urge the government and Parliament to adopt laws requiring courts to uphold and protect constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion and parental rights.

The bishops’ action goes beyond the Sathyyaseelan’s case and touches upon the nature of the state itself.

When the Federation of Malaya was first founded in 1948 (changing its name to Malaysia in 1963) the newly independent country adopted a constitution designed to reconcile its many races and religions and guarantee their rights.

The constitutional document does allow that while Islam is the national religion, Malaysia is a secular state that guarantees freedom of religion. Hence the bishops argue that Shariah cannot become the law of the land.

As it is, under Malaysia’s dual legal system, non-Muslims are discriminated in areas such conversion, court jurisdiction, property and inheritance. This had led religious minorities to become increasingly resentful toward the Muslim majority.

To avoid any religious conflict, Archbishop Murphy Pakiam of Kuala Lumpur has called on Christians to play a positive role in Malaysian society and back the administration of newly appointed Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

In a speech on Independence Day, Aug. 31, Archbishop Murphy reminded his audience that the prime minister has been stressing the need for moderation and encouraging «dialogue among cultures and religions» to rid the country of «racial and religious fundamentalism» which fuel «violent radicalism.»

In a speech before the Ecumenical Council of Churches, Badawi presented himself as «a Muslim who wants to speak to all Malaysians, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, someone whose duty is to promote a message of tolerance among the people, in particular in the Muslim majority.»

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