Azlina binti Jailani adopted the name Lina Joy when she became a Christian in 1990. Seven years later, she applied to drop her Muslim name and affiliation from her government-issued identity card so she could wed her Christian fiancé. (Malaysia does not allow interfaith marriages.)
The court approved the name change. Removing Islam from Joy's card, however, proved much more controversial. A civil court ruled that Malaysia's Shari'ah courts must approve Joy's conversion to Christianity. The ensuing legal battle threatens to shatter Malaysia's reputation as a modern, majority-Islamic nation tolerant of other faiths. Civil and Shari'ah courts alike have delivered a series of decisions against her that have captured attention beyond Malaysia's borders.
"Lina Joy's case is not Islam versus Christianity," but rather a broader question of Muslim conversion to other faiths, said Wong Kim Kong, secretary general of the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship of Malaysia (NECF).
Shari'ah courts consider abandoning Islam to be apostasy, an offense punishable by fines, detention, and imprisonment in Malaysia. Although Malaysia's constitution grants every person the right to profess and practice his or her religion, civil courts ruled July 5 that an individual cannot leave Islam "at will." Kong, who serves on the attorney general's committee to review conversion laws, told CT that Shari'ah courts rarely allow anyone to leave Islam.
This hasn't always been the case in Malaysia. Kong said that less than 10 years ago, Muslims could convert to other religions through a civil high court order or by obtaining an "exit certificate" from the government's Islamic department, for example. But in 1998, a high court ruled that Shari'ah courts ...