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Malaysian Court Throws Out Muslim Conversion Case

Malaysia's top court has rejected a Muslim convert's appeal to be recognized as a Christian in a ruling that may come to define the limits of religious freedom in the multi-racial nation. VOA's Nancy-Amelia Collins in Jakarta has more.

Lina Joy lost a six-year battle Wednesday to have the word "Islam" removed from her identity card after the country's top secular court threw the case out.

The Federal Court rejected Joy's appeal, saying the country's highest civil court had no jurisdiction in the case that must be dealt with by the Sharia, or Islamic court system.

Joy's attorney, Benjamin Dawson, says the reality is that Islamic law does not allow Muslims to formally renounce Islam. If Joy appeared at an Islamic court, she would therefore be admitting to the crime of apostasy.

"The real effect of that is that in several states in Malaysia the very act of apostasy is a criminal offense," Dawson said. "In some of these states, you may also be detained for a considerably long period. So it would be quite difficult for those who wish to renounce Islam to go to Sharia court."

Joy converted to Christianity in 1990 and was allowed by the National Registration Department to change her name from Azlina Jailani to Lina Joy in 1999. But the entry for her religion remained Islam.

The 43-year-old Christian convert wants to be allowed to marry her Christian boyfriend, but is unable to do so as long as her identity card declares her to be a Muslim.

While the Malaysian constitution guarantees freedom of religion, Sharia courts claim the right to rule on a range of personal and marital issues.

Shad Faruqui, a professor of constitutional law at Malaysia's Mara University of Technology, says Malaysians should have the right to choose their own religion without religious or state interference.

"Now personally speaking, in a very objective way, in a global way, international way, people should not have to seek anyone's approval for a matter of conscience," said Faruqui.

Joy's attorney says the ruling has harsh consequences for those wishing to renounce Islam.

"You have someone who wants to decide the religion of her choice and to live her life according to her choice, but she's now told that decision has to be made by some third party," said Dawson. "I think it's quite difficult for Muslims in particular because that places a restriction on many other issues like for example the right to get married to a non-Muslim - it affects one's life absolutely."

Joy's case is one of several recent controversies in which non-Muslim Malaysians believe they are being marginalized by an increasingly confident Islamic legal system.