Malaysia drops Bill to ban unilateral conversion of kids

Conservative Muslims fiercely opposed to law requiring consent of both parents

Malaysia has backed away from banning unilateral religious conversions of children, following fierce opposition by conservative Muslims.

The Minister in charge of Law, Datuk Seri Azalina Othman Said, told Parliament yesterday the Bill to amend marital laws would be withdrawn. She later said it would be tabled again without Section 88A, which requires both parents to agree to a child being converted to Islam. "The government hopes all parties will accept this positively to protect the principle of ethnic and religious diversity," she said in a statement.

Prime Minister Najib Razak last year promised to resolve conflicts between Muslim converts and their spouses over the religion of their children, following several high- profile cases where the newly converted Muslim parent claimed child custody by seeking a declaration from the Syariah Court.

In November, the government tabled an amendment Bill that was to have been debated and passed in April. But it was abandoned following protests from Islamic groups with the Mufti of Perak, the state's top religious official, declaring the amendments to be unconstitutional and "opposed to Allah's law".

Article 12 (4) of the Federal Constitution says the religion of those under the age of 18 shall be decided by their "parent or guardian", with the use of the singular noun being the cause of debate and legal action that has criss-crossed both common-law and Islamic courts.

One such case, in which the former husband of Ms M. Indira Gandhi converted to Islam and took custody of their children, was heard in November in the Federal Court on the question of the legality of the children's conversion.

But Malaysia's apex court reserved judgment, extending the eight-year tussle with Mr Muhammad Riduan Abdullah, who has not appeared in court since taking the children, with police yet to execute a warrant for his arrest.

Malaysia was also rocked by the National Registration Department's (NRD) refusal to comply with a Court of Appeal order on July 28 to allow Muslim children conceived out of wedlock to take their biological father's name.

Instead, the NRD said it would continue to abide by religious edicts on the matter while waiting for its appeal against the ruling to be heard by the Federal Court.

Legal experts - including Professor Shad Saleem Faruqi from Universiti Malaya, considered the country's foremost mind on constitutional law - expressed shock that a government agency had defied the court, thereby "violating rule of law". But conservative Muslims accused secular courts of interfering in Islamic affairs, and Perak Mufti Harussani Zakaria said the Court of Appeal ruling was akin to "encouraging fornication".

The amendment Bill was dropped from debate at the last sitting of Parliament, along with another controversial Bill that proposes to allow Syariah Courts to mete out tougher penalties of up to 30 years' jail, a RM100,000 (S$31,800) fine and 100 lashes.

But a source involved in the drafting of the Bill to end unilateral conversions told The Straits Times that the Minister in charge of National Unity Joseph Kurup promised that the amendment had nothing to do with changes to the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act.

"According to the minister, it was a done deal," the source said.

Ms Indira lashed out at the government, saying her eight-year court battle would be futile and she would face an "endless vicious circle". "Don't both parents have equal rights on their children? What about the non-Muslims? Isn't our welfare important too?" she was reported as saying by The Malay Mail Online.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 08, 2017, with the headline Malaysia drops Bill to ban unilateral conversion of kids. Subscribe