Sarawak chief minister pledges to amend state law to allow converts to renounce Islam

Sarawak Chief Minister Abang Johari Openg said amendments would be made to state religious law to allow converts to renounce Islam, on March 3, 2018.
Sarawak Chief Minister Abang Johari Openg said amendments would be made to state religious law to allow converts to renounce Islam, on March 3, 2018.PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's Sarawak state 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 (March 3) 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 a SOP because we cannot leave people hanging," said Datuk 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, the country'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.

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 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 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 fighting the case to renounce Islam had married Muslims but decided to return to Christianity upon divorcing orafter 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," the Chief Minister said, promising to plug loopholes in state religious law.

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

The coalition had on Friday called on the state government to act on amending laws and providing clear guidelines for would-be apostates to obtain the necessary Letter of Release from Islam.

President of Parti Islam Se-Malaysia Abdul Hadi Awang said in a Facebook video that "when a person enters Islam, they should understand that this religion isn't like clothes, where you can interchange easily".

Citing embracing Islam as an agreement with God, he added: "Islam strongly affirms to those who enter Islam they cannot easily be apostates".

Malaysians seeking to renounce Islam has encountered difficulties doing so, with the most well-known case involving Lina Joy, a Muslim-born woman who converted to Christianity. She lost the legal battle to remove the word "Islam" from her identity card in 2007.

A Sarawakian, Mr Roneey Rebit, had managed to win his case in 2016 when the civil court ruled that his conversion to Islam was done by his parents while he was still a minor, thus the applicant could not be considered as having professed to be practising Islam on his own volition.