Sarawak to amend state laws on conversion: Chief Minister

This article is more than 12 months old

Chief Minister says religious laws will allow converts to renounce Islam

KUALA LUMPUR Sarawak has announced that it would amend state laws on conversion, following a court case involving three people seeking to have their conversion to Islam reversed.

Sarawak Chief Minister Abang Johari Openg said on Saturday that amendments would be made to state religious laws that would enable converts to renounce Islam when they decide to do so.

"We will amend any weaknesses in our syariah laws in dealing with apostasy cases. There must be an SOP because we cannot leave people hanging," said Mr Abang Johari, referring to the need for a standard operating procedure (SOP).

"If that person wishes to leave (the faith), why not let him leave?" he added.

On Feb 27, Malaysia's apex court dismissed the appeal by three Sarawakian Muslim converts and a Muslim by birth to have their case be heard by the civil court. The applicants were seeking to have their identity cards and official records reflect that they are now Christians.

Malaysia's Islamic law is governed at state level, and Sarawak's syariah court had earlier ruled that it did not have the jurisdiction to issue the Letter of Release from Islam, a document required by the National Registration Department to amend the religious status in official records.

The deadlock had led to the applicants to file for their cases to be allowed hearing in the civil court instead.

The federal court's ruling last month stated that although there was no provision within the state's syariah court ordinance related to renunciation of Islam, there are provisions under the state's Islamic religious council which can be used by the Islamic court.

Malaysia requires non-Muslims marrying Muslims to convert to Islam if their marriage is to be recognised by local laws.

The three Muslim converts in Sarawak fighting the case to renounce Islam had married Muslims but decided to return to Christianity upon divorcing or after the death of their spouse.

While Malaysia is a Muslim-majority nation, Sarawak has a higher Christian population than Muslims, the only state in the country with such statistics.

In the country's last census in 2010, Sarawak recorded 1.04 million Christians, or 44.2 per cent of its population of 2.35 million. There were 710,815 Muslims in the state, accounting for 30.2 per cent of its people.

Pledging to resolve the problem, Mr Abang Johari said: "Give me six months to do this."

"Sarawak must have a liberal and practical policy," he added.

Opposition pact Pakatan Harapan's Sarawak leaders commended the Chief Minister's move, saying in a statement that it is "not a Muslim versus Christian issue, but merely honouring the rights of the people to freedom of religion".