Lina Joy may emigrate after losing court case

KUALA LUMPUR – A woman who lost a court battle to change her religion from Islam to Christianity suggested she might leave Malaysia rather than stay without the right to practice the religion of her choice, her lawyer said on Thursday.

The Federal Court, Malaysia’s highest civil court, on Wednesday rejected Lina Joy’s appeal to have the word ‘Islam’ stricken from her national identity card. The verdict was seen as a blow to religious freedom in this ethnically diverse country made up of Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs.

‘I am disappointed that the Federal Court is not able to vindicate a simple but important fundamental right that exists in all persons: namely, the right to believe in the religion of one’s choice,’ Ms Joy said in a statement released through her lawyer, Benjamin Dawson.

‘The Federal Court has not only denied me that right but (denied it) to all Malaysians who value fundamental freedoms,’ she said.

In its verdict, the Federal Court said Ms Joy – who was born to Muslim parents and began attending church in 1990 – should seek permission to renounce Islam from Islamic Shariah courts.

Malaysia follows a dual justice system: the Shariah courts administer the personal affairs of Muslims while the minorities – the ethnic Chinese and Indians – are governed by civil courts.

Ms Joy, however, has refused to seek the Shariah court’s permission, saying she is a Christian and should not be bound by Islamic laws.

If she continues to practice Christianity, she faces being charged with apostasy, which is punishable by a jail sentence and fine. She also has the option to leave the country.

Asked if she will take that option, Ms Joy, 43, said in her statement: ‘It would be extremely difficult to exercise freedom of conscience in the present environment.’ Mr Dawson, her lawyer, said the media are free to draw their conclusion from the statement.

Ms Joy, who was baptized in 1998, was successful in getting the National Registration Department to change her name to Lina Joy on her identity card. But the department refused to drop Muslim from the religion column of the card. A series of rejected appeals from 2000 onward brought her case to the Federal Court.

Joy’s case was seen as a test of religious freedom in Malaysia, and a benchmark for many other similar cases involving conflict between Islam and other religions.

Council of Churches
The Council of Churches of Malaysia said Thursday in a statement that it
viewed with ‘great regret and concern’ the judgment against Joy.

‘We believe that the constitutional provision in Article 11 which guarantees freedom of religion in our country has been severely violated,’ the council’s president Thomas Philips Shastri said.

‘It is, therefore, vital that the necessary legislation be enacted to ensure that no citizen would feel penalized when he or she exercises the individual right to choose a faith and to practice it in freedom.’ The council urged the government to ‘set in motion measures to protect religious freedom’ as promised under the constitution.

But in disputes such as Ms Joy’s, the constitution is silent on which legal system has the final word. In practice, the civil courts have accepted the unwritten superiority of the Shariah courts even though the constitution describes Malaysia as a secular state.

Rights group Suaram noted that three Muslims were jailed three years in 2000 for renouncing Islam, while a Muslim woman living in defiance as a Hindu was separated from her family and taken by Islamic authorities to a rehabilitation centre. — AP