Malaysia’s top court declared on Tuesday that Muslims who seek to convert to Christianity are not allowed to do so without the approval of a Shariah court.
The ruling, read out amid a heavy police presence outside the courthouse in Kuching, Sarawak state, was made after four Muslims in Kuching, Sarawak state appealed to the civil court to nullify their status as Muslims as they had embraced Christianity.
According to the Christian Post, Joshua Baru, the lead advocate and one of the sons of the four believers, said that the verdict was “not the decision we hoped for, however, now the deadlock or limbo is broken” on the issue of apostasy.
“The court ruled that though it agreed that the state’s Islamic courts did not have any provision for conversion in or out, the jurisdiction for conversion out could be implied,” he added, according to Union of Catholic Asian News (UCANews).
“The decision seems to suggest a double standard of the jurisdiction of the civil courts and the interpretation of [the federal constitution].”
He was referring to a decision by the same court in January this year that declared that Shariah court powers are limited and the civil court is the final arbitrator in matters even if they concern Muslims.
In this instance, according to UCANews, the five-member panel of the federal court, sitting in Kuching, unanimously ruled that civil courts could not provide the four with relief as it had no jurisdiction to decide on apostasy cases.
The four in their appeal to the top court had said the Shariah court had no power to decide apostasy cases under state laws.
Court of Appeal president Zulkefli Ahmad Makinudin said that although no such provision existed in the law, there were clauses in it which could be used by Shariah courts.
As things stand under Malaysian law, the four can be prosecuted by Islamic authorities for any breaches of Islamic codes of conduct.
Each state has its own Shariah laws. In the peninsula, the sultans are the heads of Islam. For Sarawak and Sabah, which have no royalty, the country’s king plays that role.
Adding bewilderment surrounding religious rights in Malaysia, the appeals remain opaque as the highest courts in the land, the civil courts, are under federal jurisdiction while Shariah courts are empowered by individual state laws.
Apostasy cases in Malaysia had always remained in a gray area until the current decision.
Additional reporting by Agencies.