Thursday, June 13, 2013

Will non-Muslim parents get justice, interfaith panel asks Putrajaya

Malaysia’s leading non-Muslim interfaith council demanded today the federal government answer if it had reversed its 2009 stand on child conversions to Islam, in the wake of a recent case in Negri Sembilan that may reignite the simmering religious tensions within the country.

The latest case of S. Deepa, a 29-year-old Hindu mother from Jelebu who learnt in April her estranged husband had unilaterally converted their two underage children to Islam after he embraced the country’s main religion over a year ago, had moved the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST) to censure the authorities for what it perceived to be injustice towards non-Muslims.

“Was the Cabinet decision in April 2009 a flash in the pan to pacify non-Muslim Malaysians because of the numerous cases of such gross injustice?” the MCCBCHST asked in a statement signed by the leaders representing five of the country’s six main faiths.

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In April 2009, Minister Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz announced the government will ban the automatic conversion of minors to Islam, in a bid to quell unease among religious minorities in mainly Muslim Malaysia.

Then the de facto law minister, he had said minors were to be bound by the common religion of their parents while they were married even if one parent later becomes a Muslim

“We have to resolve this once and for all. I don’t think we should be deciding on a piecemeal basis every time a conversion issue crops up,” Nazri said in a news conference then. “We have decided on a long-term solution because we expect more cases will occur, being a multiracial country.”

Islam is the religion of over 60 per cent of Malaysia’s 28 million people and its followers are bound by Syariah as well as civil laws that apply to non-Muslims.

In its statement today, the MCCBCHST demanded Putrajaya answer if the Cabinet decision ― announced shortly after Datuk Seri Najib Razak replaced Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi as prime mimister ― carried any weight at all, or if civil servants were given free rein to enforce the law as they saw fit.

The MCCBCHST did not explain its question but it appears to follow on the heels of the remark by Negri Sembilan Islamic Affairs Director Datuk Johani Hassan, who reportedly said only one parent’s consent was needed to convert a child to Islam.

“The law does not say that we need the consent of both parents before we can convert their children.

“When one parent embraces Islam, the children can be automatically converted,” he was quoted as saying by The Star Online in its June 9 news report.

MCCBCHST also demanded to know if conversion cases would be adjudged fairly by the civil courts, which it says is the proper platform to decide on such issues as non-Muslims have no legal standing in Syariah courts, which is where Islamic authorities have persistently argued for the matters to be heard.

The council reminded the authorities that the country’s highest judicial level, the Federal Court, had been seen to have abdicated its responsibility in addressing the issue when it had the chance to do so in 2010, when another Hindu mother, S. Shamala, had challenged her estranged Hindu-turned-Muslim husband’s conversion of their two young children.

A five-man panel led by the then-Chief Justice Tun Zaki Azmi had unanimously dismissed Shamala’s bid to raise her two children in the religion they grew up with, on the grounds that the mother was not in the country.

The 5-0 ruling effectively dealt a hard blow to the battle to end one-sided religious conversions, which has caused a deep rift in this multicultural and secular nation but where Islam is recognised as the official creed.

MCCBCHST also asked if the Islamic authorities would respect the decisions of the civil courts and if the police would enforce such rulings in favour of the religious minorities.

“Will the non Muslim parent get justice?” the religious leaders asked.

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