In a landmark ruling earlier this year, a court in Malaysia upheld the rights of a Christian man to convert from Islam. The judgment set precedent in the country, where religious conversions, particularly Islam to Christianity, have been broiled in controversy. Judge Yew Ken Jie’s verdict reaffirmed the right to freedom of religion in Malaysia, as guaranteed under Article 11 of the constitution.
The plaintiff, Rooney Rebit, had argued that his right to believe in Christ was protected by the constitution, as Jie agreed in her final decision.
“He is free to exercise his right of freedom to religion, and he chose Christianity,” she said.
Rebit was born in 1975 into a Christian family until his parents decided to convert to Islam when he was only eight years old. Named Azmi Mohamad Azam Shah, Rebit decided against his parents’ choice in 1999, when he chose to get baptized and turn to Christianity.
In her ruling, Jie said since Rebit was still underage when his parents had him converted to Islam, he could not be considered an officially avowed Muslim but his decision to turn to Christianity at the age of 24 was a mature and conscious decision.
Instances of conversion in Malaysia have been plagued by religious dissent and accusations of apostasy, as Muslim authorities continue to contest rulings by secular courts at Sharia hearings. The most prominent of these suits involves Lina Joy, who converted to Christianity from Islam in 1998 when she was 26 years old. In 2007, her application to have her conversion legally recognized by Malaysian courts was rejected when the High Court said it had no jurisdiction over religious matters. In another case, one father had his children converted to Islam while Islamic authorities in the country brushed aside the appeals of their mother.
In a country with two matching legal systems, pleas to secular courts to correct such unfair rulings are commonly referred back to Sharia authorities, who instead of granting permission to convert to another religion typically punish such “apostates”. As a common practice, those who appeal for religious conversion are sent for counseling, fined or imprisoned.
Rebit’s case however was slightly different. Instead of challenging his conversion to Islam, which would otherwise fall under the jurisdiction of the Sharia court, he asked for himself to be officially declared a Christian and Sarawak Islamic Religious Department as well as Sarawak Islamic Council to release him from the Islamic faith. He also asked the court to compel the Malaysian government’s National Registration Department to change his name and religion on his identity card as well as other records.
While Sarawak’s religious authorities did not object to issuing the letter of release to Rebit, thereby freeing him from his Islamic faith, they did insist on a similar letter from the Sharia court. However, in her ruling, Jie ordered National Registration Department to make necessary changes to Rebit’s identity card, stating his case was not one of jurisdiction but Malaysians’ constitutional right to religious freedom.
“He does not need a Shari‘ah court order to release him from Islam, because freedom of religion is his constitutional right, and only he can exercise that right… His conversion to the Muslim faith was not of his own volition, but by virtue of his parents’ conversion when he was a minor. He is not challenging the validity of his conversion as a minor. But having become a major, he is free to exercise his right of freedom to religion and he chose Christianity. The National Registration Department had not acted fairly towards the applicant by insisting on a letter of release and order from the Sharia Court,” she said.
Rebit’s attorney, Chua Kuan Ching, welcomed Jie’s ruling, saying he hopes that National Registration Department would not appeal her judgment.
“In previous conversion cases involving minors, the courts did not go far enough to state what happens when the child reaches adulthood. So this is a different decision because the judge is saying that he has the right to religious freedom, according to the Constitution,” he said.
The Association of Churches in Sarawak welcomed the ruling as well, saying it protects the fundamental rights of all Malaysians who want freedom of religion.
“We call upon the federal government [in Kuala Lumpur] to honor and give effect to the guarantee of religious freedom as provided in the Malaysia Agreement [which formed the basis of Sarawak and Sabah state’s union with Malaysia] and uphold the constitutional rights and fundamental liberties accorded by the federal constitution to all citizens of Malaysia,” the association said.
Rebit’s case has shown light to Malaysia’s long-suffering Christian community, which constitutes 9 percent of the country’s 30 million population and has continually come under sectarian attacks.
Photo Credits: Christianity Today