Sarawak could allow converts to renounce Islam

The Malaysian state of Sarawak announced 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 the state's religious law, providing an administrative solution for apostates.

"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 Datuk Abang Johari, referring to the need for a standard operating procedure.

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

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

The country's Islamic law is governed at the 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 filing for their cases to be allowed a hearing in the civil court instead.

The Federal Court's ruling last month stated that although there wasn't a 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 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 number of Christians than Muslims, the only state with such statistics. In the last census in 2010, Sarawak recorded 1.04 million Christians, or 44.2 per cent of its population. There were 710,815 Muslims, accounting for 30.2 per cent.

Promising to plug loopholes in state religious law, Mr Abang Johari said: "Give me six months to do this. Sarawak must have a liberal and practical policy."

Sarawak leaders of opposition alliance Pakatan Harapan commended the move, saying that it's "not a Muslim versus Christian issue, but merely honouring the rights of the people to freedom of religion".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 05, 2018, with the headline 'Sarawak could allow converts to renounce Islam'. Print Edition | Subscribe