The Court of Appeal’s dismissal of an application to renounce Islam by three Bumiputera Muslim converts spells a setback for religious freedom in Sarawak, their lawyer claimed on Wednesday.
Lawyer Baru Bian had represented Salina Jau Abdullah and two other applicants who had turned to the court for help to return to their original faith, was commenting on the outcome of the case on Wednesday morning.
“In all three cases, the appellants were originally non-Muslims who had converted to Islam for marriage and had left the religion after divorcing their spouses,” said Baru, also the Sarawak PKR chairman.
He said his clients had sworn in their statutory declarations that they were no longer practising Muslims.
Salina and the other two applicants, who did not want their names published, had separately appealed to the appellate court after the High Court had rejected their applications for judicial review of their conversion cases.
The Court of Appeal panel that heard the case in Kuching comprised Tengku Maimum Tuan Mat, Dr Badariah Sahamid and Kamardin Hashim.
The three Sarawakians, in their applications, had asked the High Court to compel the director of the Sarawak Islamic Affairs Department and Islamic Affairs Council to issue letters of release known as surat murtad in Bahasa Malaysia so they could practise their original religion once more.
They also asked the court to compel the director general of the National Registration Department to change their Muslim names to their original names and their religions from Islam to Christian.
Baru, who represented the three appellants, said the main issue before the High Court and the appellate court was whether the Shariah Court or the civil court has jurisdiction in such cases.
“Our argument is that since the applicants are no longer Muslims, as sworn in their statutory declarations, the Shariah Court has no jurisdiction over them.
“Unfortunately, the two courts have ruled that the question of whether the appellants are now ‘murtad’ should be decided by the Shariah Court,” he said.
Christians consist of about 43 per cent of 2.6 million of Sarawak’s population.
Recently, the Sarawak government set up a non-Islamic religious affairs unit in the Chief Minister’s Department with Deputy Chief Minister Amar Douglas Uggah Embah as the state minister-in charge.
The unit, expected to be operational before the end of this year, was set following calls from non-Islamic religious leaders for the state government to take care of matters relating to their religions.