Malaysia bans secret conversion of minors
The Pioneer Edit Desk
Thu, Apr 30, 2009
Although the Malaysian Cabinet’s decision to ban the conversion of minors without the consent of both parents and to make it law to raise children according to the common faith of the couple at the time of marriage, even if one of them later converts, is a welcome move towards empowering minorities in this multi-religious, multi-cultural country, optimism over the news needs to be tempered with caution.
The decision was taken after the widely publicised case of Ms M Indira Gandhi was brought to the notice of the Malaysian Government. Ms Gandhi — an ethnic Indian Hindu — has been fighting a legal battle against her husband who recently embraced Islam and converted their three children to the religion— all minors — without her consent. The husband is said to have gone into hiding with the youngest of the three, baby Prasanna, aged one.
But in the wake of the Cabinet decision the Ipoh High Court granted Ms Gandhi custody of all her children. She is now battling to be reunited with her infant child and see to it that all her children remain Hindus as the country’s Sharia’h Department has already taken note of their conversion. Ms Gandhi’s case is one of many reflecting the underlying social tensions plaguing this Muslim-dominated country.
For long minority communities such as the ethnic Tamil Hindus and the Chinese Buddhists have claimed unequal treatment and opportunities vis-à-vis the majority Muslim Malay community. And more than anything else it is in the practice of religion that these discrepancies have been most visible. Malaysia has a two-tier judicial structure comprising Islamic sharia’h courts and secular civil courts. The former are supposed to govern matters relating to Islamic personal law whereas the latter are supposed to look after civil disputes of a non-Islamic nature. But in practice the sharia’h courts exercise much greater influence than the civil courts. In fact, it is the absence of any clear demarcation of jurisdiction between the two that often creates confusion and reaffirms the feeling of discrimination among the minorities.
However, the recent Cabinet decision along with the accompanying intent to separate the religious from the civil, though laudable, is far from a magic pill that will take care of all fundamental issues. It is all very well for Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak to assert, “No Malaysian is a second-class citizen,” but words need to be backed up with action. Issues like the deplorable detention of three Hindu Rights Action Force leaders — P Uthayakumar, M Manoharan and K Vasantha Kumar — under the draconian Internal Security Act, which allows for indefinite detention without trial, need to be addressed and justice done.
For, the sentiments behind the massive anti-Government protests that were organised by Hindraf in November 2007 are still very much alive among the ethnic Indian community in Malaysia. Unless these sentiments are heeded to, the regime in Kuala Lumpur will run the risk of inviting more civil strife. Thus, it would be sensible for the Malaysian Government to abandon its high-handed policies such as the destruction of non-Islamic shrines on frivolous grounds. It is hoped that the positive noises that have been made by Mr Razak and his Cabinet in recent days will usher in a new phase in Malaysian society that will see equal treatment and respect for all ethnic groups in civil, political, economic and religious spheres of life.
News reports and backgrounder:
Malaysia bans secret conversion of minors
Decision follows conversion rows among non-Muslims
Malaysia's official religion is Islam but around 35 percent of its citizens are not Muslims
KUALA LUMPUR (Agencies)
Thu, Apr 30, 2009 | Jumada al-awwal 05, 1430 Year Six, Day 70
Malaysia banned the forced conversion of children to Islam to quell unease among religious minorities in the mainly Muslim nation, the country's Legal Affairs Minister said on Thursday.
The decision follows the highly publicized case of Indira Gandhi, a 34-year-old ethnic Indian Hindu woman who faced losing custody of her three children after her estranged husband embraced Islam and then converted their children to the religion.
Cabinet minister Nazri Aziz, part of a high-level team charged with tackling the divisive issue, said the law would be changed so that children's conversions would not be allowed without both parents' consent. Minors were to be bound by the common religion of their parents while they were married even if one parent later becomes a Muslim.
“I don't think we should be deciding on a piecemeal basis every time a conversion issue crops up "
Nazri Aziz, minister
"We have to resolve this once and for all. I don't think we should be deciding on a piecemeal basis every time a conversion issue crops up," Nazri said.
"We have decided on a long-term solution because we expect more cases will occur, being a multiracial country," he added.
Islamic law will also apply only from the point of a person's conversion to the religion and is not retrospective, he told a press conference.
Muslims, who make up around 65 percent of the Southeast Asian country's 27 million population, are bound by Islamic family laws, while civil laws apply to non-Muslims.
“I see this as the beginning of the prime minister's attempt to try and reunite the various races and improve relations among Malaysians, and non-Muslims are very hopeful about this.”
A. Vaithilingam, multi-faith association
Conversion rows, including "body-snatching" cases in which Islamic authorities have battled with relatives over the remains of people whose religion is disputed, are common in Malaysia, where the official religion in Islam.
The tussles have led to allegations that the country is being "Islamised" and that the rights of ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities are being eroded.
A. Vaithilingam, the head of Malaysia's multi-faith association, applauded the move by Prime Minister Najib Razak, who was sworn into power earlier this month with promises of wide-ranging reforms.
"It is a very good beginning as the recognition that a child will remain in his or her original faith despite the conversion of one parent is a welcome move," he told AFP.
"I see this as the beginning of the prime minister's attempt to try and reunite the various races and improve relations among Malaysians, and non-Muslims are very hopeful about this."
Nazri said the Attorney General had been instructed to look at the relevant legislation that would need to be amended to effect the decision and will seek consent from the Malay rulers -- titular heads in nine of Malaysia's 13 states who are in charge of Islamic affairs in their respective states.
There has been growing unease among Malaysia's mainly Chinese and Indian ethnic minorities who are mostly Buddhists, Christians and Hindus over numerous complaints of discrimination and unfair treatment by the authorities when seeking legal redress following cases of divorce and religious conversions.
The disquiet built up during the case of Lina Joy, a Malay Muslim who converted to Christianity at the age of 26 but was forced to endure a long legal battle to have her conversion legally recognized by the Malaysian courts.
Conversion case puts govt’s promise to test
KUALA LUMPUR, April 27 – A custody dispute between a Hindu woman and her estranged husband who converted to Islam will be heard this week, putting to test the government’s promise to ban forced conversion of children.
The case of Shamala Sathiyaseelan will be heard by the Court of Appeal tomorrow after she lost in a lower court last year. She had failed in her bid to challenge the conversion of her two young children to Islam by her husband.
The Malaysian Cabinet last week decided that minors will remain in the common religion of their parents when they married, even if one parent later became a Muslim.
“We have to resolve this once and for all. I don’t think we should be deciding on a piecemeal basis every time a conversion issue crops up,” Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Nazri Aziz had said.
But it is unclear how far this policy pronouncement will be legally binding, lawyers say, as long as the law and Federal Constitution remain unchanged.
This is particularly so after Malaysia’s apex court ruled last year that either parent could convert a child of the marriage into Islam.
“I am uncertain as to how this policy position is to translate into practice as the Cabinet has little or no direct power in this regard,” lawyer Malik Imtiaz Sarwar wrote on his blog. “Religion is a matter for the state and not the federal government.”
He is representing Shamala, whose case will be the first to go to court after the Cabinet pronouncement. The civil High Court had earlier refused to rule on the legitimacy of the conversion of her children.
It said the Syariah Court has jurisdiction as they were Muslims although as a non-Muslim, she has no legal standing in the Islamic court.
Malaysia has a parallel legal system for family issues for Muslims and non-Muslims. Disputes sometimes arise when a case straddles both jurisdictions, for example when one party to a marriage becomes a Muslim or if a Muslim attempts to convert out of Islam.
The civil courts have consistently refused to accept jurisdiction in cases such as Shamala’s.
The government has come under pressure in recent years to resolve the impasse. Last week’s pronouncement was its first attempt.
It came after yet another case surfaced. That case, with facts identical to Shamala’s, involved kindergarten teacher M. Indira Gandhi, 34, whose three children were converted by her husband.
The civil High Court has since ordered the three children to remain with her pending a final court order.
Her lawyer A. Sivanesan told The Straits Times that the full case will be heard soon, but in the meantime, he and several MPs plan to push for a more concrete solution.
“We want it to be made clear that a child can’t be converted without the consent of both parents, and that a civil marriage must be resolved under civil law,” he said.
The government has asked the Attorney-General to look into legal amendments.
Sivanesan said the Federal Constitution is currently worded in a way that suggests that one parent can convert a child. He also said the civil law on marriage and divorce had flaws in the manner it treats the non-converting spouse after one party became Muslim.
The number of disputes relating to conversions has been few but the cases have been high profile and contentious, straining racial and religious ties.
Sivanesan said he will be filing another two cases in court soon.
One involves a Hindu father against his estranged wife, who converted their two children to Islam.
The second case is that of a Chinese convert who wants to return to Buddhism as he is suffering from terminal cancer. He had converted to marry but the plans fell through.
The Cabinet pronouncement, while welcomed by non-Muslims, has been met with reservation by the Islamic authorities.
The Malaysian Syariah Lawyers Association deputy president Musa Awang was quoted by The Star as saying that the courts should be free from governmental interference.
The Islamic Development Department director-general Wan Mohamad Sheikh Abdul Aziz said the courts should look at both Islamic and civil laws in such cases.
The Cabinet pronouncement may not spell the end of the long-standing problem. – The Straits Times
Malaysian Hindu woman starts campaign to find converted child
Jaishree Balasubramanian | Kuala Lumpur
Wednesday, April 29, 2009
A poster campaign has been launched in Malaysia to track down the estranged husband of a ethnic Indian Hindu woman, who has gone underground with the couple’s one-year-old daughter after converting her to Islam.
M Indira Ghandhi, 35, a kindergarden teacher, and members of the Malaysian Hindu Sangam have put up posters of K Patmanathan, who had embraced Islam and also converted their three children without their presence or without informing Indira. The poster with the photos of baby Prasanna and her father reads ‘Surrender the Child’ in both Tamil and English.
The Opposition DAP party in Malaysia’s Perak State is also helping in putting up posters to look for Patmanathan who is now known by his Muslim name after he converted.
The Ipoh High Court had given custody of the children to Indira on Friday after the Cabinet in a landmark decision banned conversion of children without both parents’ consent.
The case of one of a series of disputes between converted Muslims and their non-Muslim spouses over the faith of their children. Coming close on the heels of the widely published Indira case, a Malaysian-Indian man on Tuesday urged his estranged Hindu wife who fled abroad with their kids to return home.
In the first related court hearing since the Cabinet’s decision, lawyers for Muslim convert Jeyaganesh Mogarajah and his estranged wife, Shamala Sathiyaseelan, submitted arguments in an appeals court regarding the seven-year-old dispute over his conversion of their two sons to Islam.
Jeyaganesh and Shamala were married in 1998 according to Hindu rites. He became a Muslim in 2002 and converted their two sons, then aged 2 and 4, without his wife’s knowledge.
Shamala, 37, left with her kids to Australia in 2004 fearing the kids could be taken away from her. She is likely to return home only if she wins the court case.
Now Jeyaganesh said he was willing to compromise with his wife and let the children learn both Muslim and Hindu teachings if they return.
Indira, meanwhile, said the last time she had spoken to her husband was on Friday evening, when the jobless former contractor called to tell her that he was taking their daughter to Singapore.
The couple’s two other children are with the mother.
“I have been in deep grief for the past one month, since he took away my baby whom I am still breastfeeding,” she said on Monday.
“I have done everything in my power to get back my daughter. I appeal for information to reunite me with my Prasana,” she said.
Indira’s lawyer A Sivanesan said 5,000 posters would be distributed nationwide with pictures of Patmanathan and Prasana, in a bid to locate them. “We believe he is still in Malaysia,” he said, expressing his disappointment with the police for failing to locate Patmanathan.
Meanwhile, Perak Mufti Harusani Zakaria defended Patmanathan’s action in taking away the baby, claiming that the father had received an interim order from the Islamic Shari’ah court to keep her.