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Malaysian religious tolerance under threat

Human rights activists of Malaysia warned that religious tolerance being threatened, and urged the country's courts Tuesday to protect freedom of worship in the Muslim-majority nation.

Suaram, one of Malaysia's leading rights groups, released its 2006 annual report in which it alleged there were increasing rights violations, particularly due to racial and religious factors.

"It has not helped that our courts have been somewhat reticent, a little bit hesitant to take positions that uphold the federal constitution," said Zaitun Kasim, a Suaram committee member.

Representatives of Malaysia's religious minorities, including Buddhists, Christians and Hindus, have expressed concerns over the past year about their religious rights.

In a landmark case, Malaysia's highest civil court is scheduled to deliver a verdict Wednesday on whether the constitutional right of Lina Joy - a woman who renounced Islam and embraced Christianity - to choose her religion overrides an Islamic law that prohibits ethnic Malay Muslims from leaving Islam.

Ethnic Malay Muslims, who comprise nearly 60 percent of Malaysia's 26 million people, are governed by Islamic Shariah laws in family and personal matters. Separate civil laws apply to Malaysians of other religions, whose ethnicities are mainly Chinese and Indian.

However, there is no clear understanding which court has the higher authority in dealing with disputes between Muslims and non-Muslims, especially within a family. Civil courts have generally steered clear of taking a position in such cases, leaving it for the Islamic Shariah courts, where verdicts have mostly been in favor of Muslims.

High-profile cases since late 2005 include that of deceased Hindu man M. Moorthy - who converted to Islam secretly without his family's knowledge - and was forcibly buried as a Muslim by Islamic authorities.

More recently, the Court of Appeals caused an uproar among minorities by ruling that a Hindu woman, R. Subashini, must seek redress in a Shariah court in her appeal against her husband's efforts to convert their children to Islam. The couple was married as Hindus but the husband converted to Islam last year.

Suaram executive director Yap Swee Seng said the government should "protect the rights of individuals rather than playing into the gallery of popularity" by trying to appease Malays.

"The government response is very weak and reluctant when it comes to issues especially like Islam," Yap said.

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