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2007-05-31
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Court to rule in test case for religious freedom in Muslim Malaysia
Malaysia's highest court is to rule on May 30 whether a Muslim woman has the right to convert to another religion in a high-profile case seen as a test of religious freedom in the Muslim-majority country.

The Federal Court is to decide whether Azlina Jailani, who converted to Christianity and changed her name to Lina Joy, can remove the word "Islam" from the religion category on her government identity card, her lawyer, Benjamin Dawson, said May 25.

The case "will decide the space of religious freedom in Malaysia," he told The Associated Press.

"If she wins, it means that the constitutionally guaranteed right of freedom of religion prevails. If she loses, that means the constitutional guarantee is subservient to Islamic restrictions," Dawson said.

A ruling against Joy could strengthen the perception by non-Muslims that they are discriminated against and treated like second-class citizens. A ruling for Joy, however, would be seen by conservative Muslims as an erosion of Islamic values.

The Federal Court ruling is a rare entry into the highly sensitive area of religious conversions.

The Malaysian Constitution guarantees freedom of religion to all citizens, suggesting that it is a secular state. But Muslims, who comprise 60 percent of the 26 million population, are not allowed to leave their religion.

The Constitution does not say who has the final say in cases such as Joy's — the Shariah courts that govern Muslims, or the civil courts which apply to the Chinese and Indian minorities.

Often, Muslims who leave Islam practice their new faith in private or emigrate. Joy, 42, decided to fight it out in the court.

She began battling in 1998 when she applied to the National Registration Department to change her Muslim name on her identity card.

The NRD changed her name but refused to delete `"Islame from the religion category, saying it needed permission from a Shariah court. She sued the NRD in a civil court but lost. Her appeal to the Federal Court is her last legal avenue.

Joy's case is the most prominent in a string of recent religious disputes, some involving custody of children born to parents of different faiths, and one involving the custody of the body of a man who was born a Hindu but apparently converted to Islam without telling his family.

Source: The Associated Press (AP)Eileen Ng, Associated Press Writer
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