By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife with reporting from Indonesia and BosNewsLife News Center
PUTRAJAYA, MALAYSIA (BosNewsLife) -- Malaysia's best known Christian convert, Lina Joy, on Wednesday, May 30, lost her six-year battle to be recognized as a Christian in a landmark case that tested the limits of religious freedom in this mainly Muslim nation.
The Federal Court based in Putrajaya, about 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) south of the capital Kuala Lumpur, rejected her attempt to have the word "Islam" removed from the religious category on her identity card.
A three-judge panel ruled by a 2-1 majority Wednesday, May 30, that only the Islamic Shariah Court can allow such a move. "You can't at whim and fancy convert from one religion to another," Federal Court Chief Justice Ahmad Fairuz Sheikh Abdul Halim said in delivering judgment in the case.
The decision, welcomed by Muslims and condemned by churches, came as a major setback for the 43-year-old Joy, who had argued that she should not be bound by Shariah law because she is a Christian. Joy, who was born Azlina Jailani and brought up as a Muslim, began going to church as a young woman in 1990 and was baptized eight years later.
She wants to marry her Christian boyfriend, a cook, but she cannot do so while her identity card declares her to be Muslim. In 1999, the registration department allowed her to change the name in her identity card to Lina Joy but the entry for her religion remained "Islam".
Joy was not present at Wednesday's hearing, amid security concerns, her defense team said. She and her ethnic Indian Catholic boyfriend have been living in hiding since early 2006 as they fear they could be targeted by Muslim extremists, Joy's lawyer said in a statement.
Leonard Teoh, a Malaysian Catholic lawyer, said the verdict failed to protect religious rights. "People like Lina Joy shouldn't be trapped in a legal cage, not being able to come out to practice their true conscience and religion," Teoh told reporters.
In published remarks, Malaysia's Council of Churches, said it was saddened about the outcome of the case. "We still go by the possibility that the constitution allows any citizen of the country to exercise his or her right to choose a religion and practice it," council secretary Rev. Hermen Shastri told journalists outside the court.
However hundreds of young Muslims celebrated the ruling shouting "Allah-o-Akbar" (Allah is great) outside the court house. "We praise Allah for the decision taken by the court," said Muslim Youth Movement President Yusri Mohammad, adding that, "Justice has been served."
The court ruling added to uncertainty about the future of Joy and her finance. Already disowned by her family, Joy said recently she was also forced to quit her computer sales job after clients threatened to withdraw their business, while it would be difficult for her boyfriend to continue working.
Christians comprise roughly nine percent of Malaysia's mainly Muslim population of 25-million, and the closely watched case was expected to increase pressure on other Christian converts, both in Malaysia and elsewhere in the region, including in Indonesia.
Wednesday's ruling also underscored concerns among rights activists that Christians and other religious minorities are not treated equally in a country that promotes itself internationally in television commercials as a multi ethnic "Truly Asia" haven.
On Monday, May 29, an influential Malaysian human rights group warned that religious tolerance was being threatened. In its annual 2006 report released Tuesday, May 29, Suaram, one of Malaysia's leading rights groups, said there were "increasing rights violations", due to racial and religious factors in the country.
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