Tuesday 24 January 2006, AP.
Muslim lawyers in Malaysia say an Islamic court’s landmark verdict allowing a Buddhist burial for a woman who renounced Islam should relieve fears among Malaysia’s religious minorities about their rights.
An advocacy group for religious minorities, however, said on Tuesday that the precedent-setting verdict showed the Islamic court was inconsistent in its protection of religious minorities.
The Shariah High Court ruled on Monday that the body of Nyonya Tahir, an 89-year-old ethnic Malay, should be handed over to her Buddhist children.
A Muslim by birth, Nyonya was raised as a Chinese by her Malay grandmother who married a Chinese convert to Islam, and she continued to live as a Chinese and practised Buddhism after marrying Chiang Meng in 1936.
All their children were registered and lived as Chinese.
She died on Thursday, but the state religious affairs department obtained an order to postpone her burial until the case was heard. She was buried according to Buddhist rites hours after Monday’s verdict.
The court rejected concerns raised by Islamic authorities over whether Nyonya’s conversion to Buddhism was valid.
The woman had kept her Malay name – Nyonya Tahir – and her identification card said she was officially a Muslim.
Muhammad Burok, president of the Malaysian Shariah Lawyers Association, said Monday’s Shariah court verdict "gives great hope to non-Muslims that they can find justice in the Islamic system".
"We hope non-Muslims will now understand that their fears are not justified."
Nyonya’s case was closely scrutinised because of dissatisfaction among religious minorities over how the authorities in the mostly Muslim nation dealt with the death of a Hindu-born soldier, Maniam Moorthy, who was buried last month as a Muslim. Muslim officials said he had converted to Islam without informing his family. A Shariah court refused to hear an appeal by Moorthy’s widow because she was not a Muslim, while the civil court also turned her away, saying it had no jurisdiction over a Shariah court decision.
However, in a precedent-setting move, the Shariah High Court allowed two of Nyonya’s eight Buddhist children to testify that she had left Islam, and submit documents in which she stated that she wanted to be buried as a Buddhist.
Chiang Kwai Ying and Chiang Ah Fatt on Monday became the first non-Muslims to ever testify in a Shariah court, which handles cases involving Muslims.
While non-Muslims are forbidden from filing cases in Shariah court, they are not officially barred from giving testimony in Islamic trials. In previous cases, however, they have never done so.
Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, the Malaysian prime minister, has said ambiguous laws on religion will be reviewed.
But a memorandum handed to him by nine non-Muslim cabinet ministers last week to highlight their concerns outraged Abdullah’s ruling Malay party, prompting them to withdraw it.
Concerns over sharia
The inter-faith council of minority religions, the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and
Sikhism, has also said it is concerned that sharia is becoming the supreme law of the land.
"The sharia court is apparently being given the absolute power to determine whether a person is a Muslim or not," said Wong Kim Kong, spokesman for the council.
This could give rise to "hostilities between the Muslims and the non-Muslims".
Abu Talib Othman, chairman of Malaysia’s Human Rights Commission and a former attorney-general who drafted the contentious amendment, defended the legislation, which he said was never intended to deny justice to non-Muslims.
"The problem today is created by courts who have no courage to comply with the oath of office they took," he said, attacking the judge who refused to overrule the sharia court in the Moorthy case.
"The court must hear his complaint and apply the law as they understand it. The courts today are regretfully taking the easy way out. Is he [the judge] incompetent or being threatened?"
Nazri Aziz, a minister in the prime minister’s department, said that disputes over conversions involving Malaysia’s Chinese and Indian communities, who live alongside the majority Muslim Malays, should be heard in a civil court where all sides can be represented.
"When a person’s faith is in question, the civil court should be allowed to hear it. Let evidence from both sides be produced," he said.
"If we let the Muslim court decide this, justice might not be served because it would decide in favour of Islam."