ERLC religious freedom advocacy encouraged by major court decision in Malaysia

February 19, 2018

The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission has been working for years to protect our Christian brothers and sisters in Malaysia from increasing levels of persecution by working for the religious freedom of all Malaysians.

At the end of January, Malaysia’s Federal Apex Court delivered a far-reaching decision that supports our religious liberty work in the country. The decision provides support to Christians who have faced increasing Islamic pressure to impose Sharia law in a way that not only threatens religious freedom for Christian churches but also threatens Christians’ lives throughout Malaysia.

The case involved M. Indira Gandhi, a kindergarten teacher and mother of three who was challenging the conversion of her children to Islam by her ex-husband. The Apex Court nullified the conversion of the three children, declaring that consent of both parents must be sought to convert non-Muslim children to Islam. Under Malaysia law, parents decide the religion of minor children.

Malaysia is a majority Muslim country, with over 60 percent of the country practicing Sunni Islam. There is a small, but vibrant Christian minority in Malaysia. Almost 10 percent of the population are professing Christians. Churches, seminaries, and ministry efforts have been historically allowed to exist and thrive for the last 200 years.

But in recent years, local believers have experienced increasing persecution.

Increasing religious persecution

In the hardest to reach areas of the island nation, Islamic groups are forcing people to register with the government as Muslims. These groups travel to remote places, and bribe impoverished and illiterate subsistence farmers into being legally registered as Muslims. For rural churches where these farmers attend, local pastors are struggling to warn people about the false hope that their condition will improve by converting to Islam. 

Some have returned to Christianity and become believers, but under Malaysia’s Sharia law, it is illegal to ever leave Islam.

Malaysia registers the religion of all its citizens. In Malaysia, your ID card has your religion printed on it. Practicing Christians who are registered as Muslims are treated like Muslims by the government. They are unable to marry other Christians. Their children are registered as Muslims and will be required to attend Muslim schools. They will receive a Muslim burial. All of this is true even if they are actually followers of Christ.

A brighter future of freedom

Against this rising tide of systemic, governmental persecution of Christians comes this court decision, which supports the high federal court’s right of judicial review and separation of powers. It also protects the basic structure of Malaysia’s constitution against an amendment intended to undercut the basic principles intended to protect freedom for all.

This means that the fundamental liberties and protection of minorities like Christians have a brighter future than they did before this court decision. This case serves as precedent for Malaysia to be a state governed by a constitution instead of an Islamic state governed by provisions of Sharia law. The decision also means that the federal civil courts have the power of judicial review over attempts to enact Islamic law within the country.

As we continue our international religious freedom work in Malaysia, this case provides the first sign of hope in quite some time. We must remain vigilant to protect the religious freedom for every Malaysian to ensure that human rights are protected and every faith is free to practice within the country.

Our Malaysian brothers and sisters in Christ are counting on us.

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Palmer Williams

Palmer Williams serves as General Counsel and Senior Policy Advisor for the ERLC.  Palmer specializes in legal and policy analysis related to international human rights, sanctity of life, and government affairs. As a licensed attorney specializing in international law, she has extensive experience advocating for human rights on the international stage, … Read More