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Asia/Pacific - Malaysia - Church/State

Malaysian Christian challenges Islamic authorities over dead wife's faith
(AP, January 3, 2008)

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - The Christian husband of a dead Malaysian woman sought to stop Islamic authorities Thursday from giving her a Muslim funeral amid a dispute over whether she converted to Islam before her death.

The case is the latest in a series of legal conflicts that have alarmed Malaysia's non-Muslim minorities, who have voiced growing fears that the Constitution and courts fail to sufficiently safeguard their religious rights.

Wong Sau Lan, 54, died in a Kuala Lumpur hospital Dec. 30. Her husband, Ngiam Tee Kong, received notice from the Federal Territory Islamic Council the next day stating that his wife had converted to Islam on Dec. 24, said Ngiam's lawyer, Karpal Singh.

When Ngiam later tried to claim her body from the hospital morgue, he was told it would have to be buried by the Islamic Council according to Muslim rites, Karpal said.

The Kuala Lumpur High Court was scheduled to hear Ngiam's petition later Thursday for a temporary order to prevent the Islamic Council from taking possession of his wife's body.

The order would enable the court to hold hearings to determine what should be done. Ngiam claims Wong remained a Christian at her death and that any conversion was legally invalid.

"There was no lawful conversion," Karpal said.

Other details of the case, including how the alleged conversion occurred, were not immediately clear. Islamic Council and hospital officials familiar with the case could not immediately be contacted.

Ethnic Malay Muslims make up about 60 percent of Malaysia's 27 million people, while most of the rest are Buddhists, Hindus or Christians from ethnic Chinese and Indian communities.

Decades-long multiracial harmony has come into question in recent years amid concerns among minorities that their religions are getting second-class treatment by the Muslim majority, especially in court cases involving non-Muslim religious rights.

The case of Ngiam's wife bears similarities to several other disputes since 2005 involving the burial of people whom Muslim authorities claimed had converted to Islam.

A national debate erupted when Maniam Moorthy, a former Hindu, was buried as a Muslim in December 2005 after an Islamic court ruled he had converted before his death. Moorthy never told his family of the conversion, and his widow failed to convince the civil court to give her custody of the body.