May 30, 2007 / 4:57 AM / 11 years ago

FACTBOX: Five facts on religion and apostasy in Malaysia

(Reuters) - Malaysia’s best-known Christian convert, Lina Joy, lost her six-year battle to have “Islam” removed from her national identity card on Wednesday.

Here are five facts on the case and religion in Malaysia:

* WHAT IS RELIGION’S OFFICIAL STATUS?

- Article 11 of Malaysia’s Constitution guarantees freedom of worship but provides for bans on non-Muslims recruiting Muslims away from Islam. The constitution also defines all ethnic Malays, more than half of the population of 26 million, as Muslim.

- Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has developed his own brand of moderate Islam called Islam Hadhari or “civilization Islam”. It stresses that Islam should not be a barrier to new ideas, modern education and economic development.

- Abdullah’s predecessor, Mahathir Mohammed, had first described the country as an Islamic state on September 29, 2001, when under pressure from Islamic groups after the September 11 attacks.

* WHAT ARE THE MAIN RELIGIONS?

- Islam, the official state religion, is followed by some 60 percent of the population, according to the 2000 census. The majority follow Sunni Islam and strains deemed “deviant” are opposed by the government.

- Buddhism is the second largest faith (19 percent), followed by Christianity (9 percent), Hinduism (6 percent) and Confucianism, Taoism and other Chinese religions (2 percent).

* WHY ARE RELIGIOUS CONVERSIONS CONTROVERSIAL?

- Apostasy is generally considered a sin or a crime by Islamic authorities. Muslims who wish to convert from Islam face severe obstacles. Islamic courts have exclusive jurisdiction in cases of apostasy and generally send them for counseling but, if this fails, they can mete out fines or jail sentences.

- In 2000, an Islamic court sentenced four people to 3-year prison terms for apostasy.

- Leaders of the opposition Islamic Party (PAS) have said that the penalty for apostasy should be death.

* WHY HAS LINA JOY FOUGHT THE CASE?

- The sales assistant was born into a Muslim family but was baptized into Catholicism in 1998. She asked for the word “Islam” to be removed from her identity card, saying she wanted to enter into a non-Muslim marriage and could not set up a home and family without the change. In practice in Malaysia, Muslims can only marry other Muslims.

- A High Court judge first ruled against the 43-year-old in 2001, and reaffirmed a 1999 ruling that only Islamic courts can rule on conversions.

* ARE THERE OTHER RELIGIOUS RESTRICTONS?:

- Proselytizing to Muslims, while not illegal under federal law, is outlawed in most Malaysian states. Punishments for those caught trying to convert them include jail time and whippings.

- A 2002 ban on the Bible being published in the Malay and Iban languages was later repealed by Abdullah, who said it was over-zealous. But in April 2005 he said copies of Malay-language Bibles must have “Not for Muslims” printed on the front, and could only be distributed in churches and Christian bookshops.

* Malaysia’s tough film censorship laws vet sensitive religious material, nudity and sex. In 2004 Abdullah intervened to allow tickets for actor-director Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” to be sold to Christians, while Muslims were barred from seeing it.

Sources: Reuters, International Religious Freedom Report 2005, Malaysian Bar, (www.malaysianbar.org.my/content/view/1834/27/)

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