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Malaysian court approves landmark Christian conversion case

MALAYSIA (BP) — A Malaysian court affirmed the right of a former Muslim to convert to Christianity in a landmark ruling handed down just before Easter.

Rooney Rebit converted to Christianity in 1999 and was baptized at age 24, according to World Watch Monitor (WWM). But he was officially considered Muslim due to his parents’ conversion to Islam when he was 8.

Rebit asked authorities to legally declare him a Christian and affirm his right to believe in Jesus. He also wanted the National Registration Department to change his identity card and for his state’s religious department and Islamic Council to officially release him from Islam, WWM reported. All Malaysian national identity cards list religion.

Malaysia has secular and Islamic Sharia courts. It often is difficult for Muslims to change their religion because they are sent to Sharia courts for permission, Malay Mail Online reported.

Because he did not challenge his conversion to Islam, Rebit was able to petition the secular court, which ruled in his favor on March 24.

“His conversion to the Muslim faith was not of his own volition but by virtue of his parents’ conversion when he was a minor,” Judge Yew Ken Jie of the High Court in Kuching, Sarawak state, said in his ruling. “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.”

Yew ordered the agency to modify Rebit’s identity card. The National Registration Department is often unwilling to change the religious status on ID cards without Sharia court permission, according to UCA News.

Christian and Muslim groups supportive of the ruling said it affirmed the federal constitution’s religious freedom protections, but some were less optimistic about the ruling’s overall effect.

“This judgment reaffirms the supremacy of the federal constitution, which under Article 11 defends every Malaysian citizen’s right to freedom of religion,” Muslim NGO Sisters in Islam said in a statement.

Article 11 reads, “(1)Every person has the right to profess and practice his religion and, subject to Clause (4), to propagate it,” according to the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs.

One local priest called the ruling “good news … but for how long?” The priest, who did not want his name used out of concern for his safety, said he hoped it would set a precedent for future legal battles.

Social worker Steven Chu hopes the ruling will be a turning point for those in “conversion limbo,” but told UCA News it is not certain the decision will stand.

Rebit’s lawyer hopes the National Registration Department won’t appeal the decision, according to WWM.

In practice, decisions from Islamic courts often overrule the federal guarantees of religious freedom. The courts can make it difficult for converts through bureaucracy and penalties for “apostasy.”

Malay Mail Online reported that between 2000 and 2010, Islamic courts approved just 135 out of 686 applications to change Muslim identity to another religion.

Another Christian convert from Islam, Lina Joy, unsuccessfully fought a six-year court battle to have her conversion legally recognized. She is thought to have fled the country after losing that fight in 2007, Malay Mail Online reported.