Malaysian woman's bid to stop her son's conversion to Islam receives temporary boost

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - A Malaysian court on Friday temporarily forbade an ethnic Indian Muslim from converting his 1-year-old son to Islam, giving some respite to the man's Hindu wife who is trying to block him from changing their son's religion, media reports said.

The case has highlighted sensitive issues of race and religion among Malaysia's non-Muslim ethnic minorities, who, rights groups say, are facing an erosion of their rights.

The Court of Appeal ruled Friday that Muhammad Shafi Saravanan Abdullah — who converted from Hinduism to Islam — will have to wait for the apex Federal Court to hear the appeal by his wife, R. Subashini, before he can convert their son to Islam, the national news agency Bernama reported.

Subashini, 28, submitted her petition to the court on Friday. No date has been set for a hearing.

In an earlier ruling, Subashini had been told by the Court of Appeal that she would have to fight her case in the Shariah Court, which rules on cases concerning Malaysia's majority Muslims. Her chances of blocking the conversion would have been slim in the Shariah Court, rights groups have said.

The previous ruling was seen by civil rights groups as another step in the erosion of minority faiths' rights in this Muslim-majority country, where a series of court verdicts asserting the supremacy of Islam in recent months have strained ethnic relations.

Had the temporary relief not been granted to Subashini on Friday, her rights would have been compromised and caused "severe injustice," the woman's lawyer, Malik Imtiaz Sarwar, was quoted as saying by Bernama.

The couple were married in July 2001 under Hindu rites and have two children: Dharvin Joshua, 3, and Sharvind, 1. Shafi claims that Dharvin converted to Islam along with him in May 2006.

Until Subashini's petition is heard, Muhammad Shafi, 31, cannot go ahead with his plan to approach the Islamic Shariah Court to convert Sharvind, annul the marriage and claim custody of the two boys, Bernama said.

It quoted Malik, the wife's lawyer, as saying that if the Court of Appeals had not stopped the husband from going to Shariah Court, he would have easily converted the second child also.

"The threat is substantial," he said.

Rights groups were outraged when the Court of Appeal asked Subashini to fight her case in the Shariah Court, which according to the Constitution only has jurisdiction over Muslims.

About 60 percent of Malaysia's 26 million people are Muslims while the rest are mostly Christians, Hindus and Sikhs from the ethnic Chinese and Indian communities. Most Muslims are Malays.

Religious matters are extremely sensitive in Malaysia, and most minorities have accepted Islam's dominance, resulting in a veneer of harmony hiding simmering tensions.

The Star newspaper on Friday quoted the Chin Oy Sim of the Women's Aid Organization, a voluntary group, as saying that it was unjust to force non-Muslims to subject themselves to Shariah Courts.

Besides, all matters relating to the marriage between Subashini and Muhammad Shafi must be settled in the civil court since the marriage was registered under civil law, she said.