SARAWAK rights activist Peter John Jaban said the Federal Court’s decision today to let apostasy applications be heard in the shariah court instead of civil courts is a let-down for the state’s residents, whose freedom of religion is provided for under the Malaysia Agreement 1963.
The activist with the Sarawak Dayak Iban Association proposed ways to resolve cases of those wanting to leave Islam, saying there were numerous apostasy cases pending at the state National Registration Department and Sarawak Islamic Affairs Department.
Among his proposals was the removal of the requirement for conversion to Islam for marriages with Muslims, as religious conversion and the raising of children should be a personal and family choice.
He said this was practised in some Middle Eastern countries, Bosnia and Indonesia.
Three of the four appellants in the case today are non-Muslims by birth, and had converted to Islam only to facilitate their marriages to Muslims.
“We do not want our beloved country to be embroiled in a conflict arising from religion,” Jaban said after the court decision.
“In a multicultural country like Malaysia, and particularly in Sarawak, where the religious mix is more marked, there must be a separation of politics and religion, so that we Sarawakians can live in harmony with each other, like our forefathers before the formation of Malaysia.
“Sarawak should avoid past examples of countries torn apart by the abuse of religion in politics, in order to remain as a secular state as stipulated in the Malaysia Agreement, in our quest to make Sarawak a better home to live in.”
Jaban suggested that the process of apostasy be simplified for Sarawak natives seeking to return to their original religions.
“These are people who were not born into Islam or raised in the faith. They simply wish to return to life in their original communities.
“This is why they need to be released from a religious status that does not fit with their chosen way of life and beliefs. (But) since they are still lawfully considered Muslims, they are portraying a way of life and behaviours deemed sinful in the eyes of Islam.”
Sarawak has a majority Christian population, although at the national level, Christianity is a minority religion with less than 10% of Malaysians professing the faith.
The Federal Court in Kuching today unanimously dismissed the appeals of three Muslim converts and a Muslim by birth to have their applications to apostate heard in the civil high court.
The apex court’s decision was based on provisions that it said gave the Sarawak shariah court jurisdiction to hear such applications.
The four brought their case to the Federal Court after the civil courts refused to hear their applications on the grounds that they were religious cases.
The Sarawak shariah court would not act on them, claiming that there were no legal provisions to empower it to hear the cases.
Parti Bansa Dayak Sarawak Baru (PBDS Baru) criticised the state Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) for failing to clarify earlier the legal provisions for the state’s shariah court to hear apostasy cases.
PBDS Baru Youth chief Rapelson Richard Hamit said the state AGC could have saved the four appellants seeking to leave Islam from “wasting time filing their case with the Federal Court”.
State Deputy Attorney-General Saferi Ali yesterday told the Federal Court that the state shariah court had jurisdiction to hear apostasy cases under laws in the Sarawak Majlis Islam Ordinance 2001.
Hamit said state religious authorities must provide clarity on matters involving apostasy.
He said the outcome for the four, who wanted to practise the religion of their choice, saw the violation of their rights to religious freedom as enshrined in the Malaysia Agreement.
Sarawak PAS said the apex court’s decision showed that the Islamist party was right in pursuing amendments to enhance the jurisdiction of the shariah court, and to amend federal laws on shariah punishments.
“It is timely, and now, it needs to be supported, particularly by Malay-Muslim political leaders in the state,” said state PAS commissioner Jofri Jaraiee.
He said more effort was needed to uphold the shariah court, to overcome the clash of jurisdiction between the institution and the civil courts.
“Collaboration between all government agencies, civil society bodies, political parties and individual Muslims is essential in defending the faith in Sarawak,” he said, adding that the welfare of Muslim coverts must be improved to prevent apostasy.