[JURIST] Malaysia's Federal Court, the highest court for civil cases, Wednesday rejected an appeal by Lina Joy, who sought to change her religious affiliation on her government registration card from Islam to Christianity. The high court's ruling upheld a lower civil court ruling that Joy must obtain permission to change her religious affiliation from an Islamic Sharia [JURIST news archive] court. The three-judge panel ruled 2-1 Wednesday that only a Sharia court had the authority to recognize and register Joy's religious conversion. Chief Justice Ahmad Fairuz said that Joy "cannot simply at her own whims enter or leave her religion," adding that "she must follow rules." Judge Richard Malajum, the lone dissenter and only non-Muslim who heard the case, characterized it as "unreasonable" to refer Joy to a Sharia court because she could face prosecution for apostasy, which is a crime punishable by fines, jail sentences, caning, or time in "rehabilitation" centers in Malaysia.
Malaysia maintains two parallel justice systems, a secular civil court system and a Sharia justice system. Approximately 58 percent of Malaysia's population of 26 million are ethnic Malays, generally Muslims who fall under the jurisdiction of the Sharia courts. The remaining 40 percent of the population are mainly ethnic Chinese, indigenous, or Indian, and are generally Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, or Taoist/Confucian falling under the jurisdiction of civil courts. The Malaysian constitution [text] has been interpreted to regard all ethnic Malays as Muslim, because Islam is considered to be an intrinsic component of the ethnic identity. Malaysia [JURIST news archive] is officially a secular state, however, it recognizes Islam as the official religion. The constitution was written with particular vagueness in areas of ethnicity and religion to facilitate social harmony despite the deep social cleavages in Malaysian society. AP has more.