Child conversion law only affirms status quo, Muslim NGOs say

Originally reported here.

Child conversion law only affirms status quo, Muslim NGOs say

KUALA LUMPUR, July 4 – The unilateral conversion of minors to Islam has already been the “status quo” in Malaysian courtrooms, several Muslim groups alleged today, throwing a spanner in the works for Putrajaya as it struggles over the barrage of criticisms against its newly proposed law. Pembela – a coalition of around 20 Muslim NGOs – today fended off critics’ allegations that Section 107 (b) of the Administration of the Religion of Islam (Federal Territories) Bill 2013 is unconstitutional and had gone against a 2009 Cabinet decision. Pembela chairman Dr Yusri Mohamad said the dispensation with the need for consent from both parents on minors’ conversion has both been recognised by the Federal Court and been practised in the country.

“Therefore Pembela urges all to understand Section 107 (b) as a firm status quo because it is supported by two highest authorities that are most relevant to this issue, that is religious authorities and also the courts,” Yusri told reporters this afternoon, insisting that the clause in the newly-tabled Bill had already existed in a 1993 legislation. He also referred to the Federal Court case of Subashini Rajasingam against Saravanan Thangathoray in 2009 to back up his claim.

Yusri said the Federal Court — the country’s supreme court — is a higher authority than the Cabinet. In 2009, then Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz said the government will ban the unilateral conversion of minors to Islam, in an attempt to assuage concerns among religious minorities in the Muslim-majority country.

Custodial tussles in cases of unilateral child conversions have been a growing concern over the years and provide a high-profile glimpse of the concerns of Malaysia’s religious minorities over the perceived dominance of Islam in the country. It also highlights the complications of Malaysia’s dual legal systems where Muslims are bound by both civil and syariah laws, the latter of which do not apply to or recognise non-Muslims.

But Yusri said that the issue over the clause is related to the determination of the religious status of children, and not other issues such as “guardianship”. He expressed Pembela’s confidence that non-Muslim parents would still have a role to play in the lives of their children who had converted to Islam along with the other spouse, basing this on Islamic laws and principles.

He disagreed with the views of former Perlis Mufti Datuk Dr Asri Zainul Abidin that minors should be allowed to choose their religious beliefs, with the Muslim parent having the right to educate them about Islam. “Dr MAZA does not represent the interpretation of Islam in Malaysia no matter how many followers he has on Facebook or Twitter,” he said, referring to Asri by his popular moniker, saying that the Islamic scholar was giving his personal opinion.

Yusri also urged non-Muslims to accommodate and understand the Muslims’ situation, where he said believers are bound by stricter rules on entering and leaving the religion. “We have no right to interpret or liberalise our religion no matter how much certain people wants to liberalise Islam,” he said, but said the “strict” rules of Islam was a strength of the religion.

Yusri also urged the people to revert to the spirit of Article 3 (1) of the Federal Constitution, which states that the country’s official religion is Islam. “That is the Malaysian approach, guided by our Constitution, is to respect Islam as the official religion.”

When asked about objections to two clauses in the same Bill that gives the Syariah court the jurisdiction to decide on a person’s religious status, Pembela deputy chairman Azril Mohd Amin defended these clauses. Azril, who is also the vice-president of the Muslim Lawyers Association (PPMM), today claimed that it was accepted and settled law that the civil courts had no jurisdiction on the matter, pointing to the high-profile case of Lina Joy at the Federal Court in 2007. “Syariah court is the proper avenue,” he said at the same press conference.

Azril also criticised the MCCBCHST — the country’s largest non-Muslim interfaith group — for commenting on issues relating to Islam, saying that they had no authority to speak on such matters. Yesterday, the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST) had in a meeting with MCA shared their concerns on Section 107 (b), Clauses 51(3)(b)(X) and 51(3)(b)(XI) of the Bill. The latter two clauses are on the Syariah court’s jurisdiction to decide on an individual’s religious status.

Clause 51(3)(b)(X) empowers the Syariah court to declare that a person is no longer a Muslim, with the other clause giving the Syariah court power to decide on whether a deceased person was a Muslim or otherwise at the time of death. Sardar Jagir Singh, MCCBCHST’s deputy president, reportedly said that the jurisdiction in legal disputes over the religious status of individuals should lie with the civil court instead of the Syariah court.

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