New religious dispute sparks fears of rising Islamization in Malaysia

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - A Hindu has accused Islamic authorities of illegally detaining his Muslim wife — the latest dispute raising concerns about rising Islamization in Malaysia, lawyers and opposition leaders said Wednesday.

Ethnic Indian truck driver Magendran Sababathy, 25, filed a suit Tuesday asking a high court in central Selangor state to order the state's Islamic Department to produce his wife in court so she can be freed, said lawyer Karpal Singh.

Singh said officials raided the couple's home on April 28 and took away Najeera Farvinli Mohamed Jalali, telling Magendran their year-old marriage under Hindu rites was illegal since she was a Muslim.

Magendran said he was not told where she was taken and has not seen her since.

Under Malaysia's Islamic or Shariah laws, anyone marrying a Muslim must convert to Islam. Anyone born into a Muslim family cannot legally convert to another faith.

"Najeera's detention is illegal because no detention order was served on her," Singh said. "We want to know where she has been taken. We are asking for her to be set free."

"Islamic officials can't just go to somebody's house and split up the family," he said.

Islamic Department officials could not be reached for comment.

Magendran's case is the latest of several disputes this year that involve minority groups' religious rights and are straining ties in multiethnic Malaysia, where Islam is the dominant religion.

Minorities include Buddhists, Christians and Hindus.

Muslims — nearly 60 percent of Malaysia's 26 million people — are governed by Islamic laws in family and personal matters. Separate civil laws apply to others.

Last month, Selangor Islamic officials forcibly separated a Hindu from his Muslim wife of 21 years, and their six children. He won custody of his children, but the couple could not live together legally and decided to separate.

In January, Islamic officials detained a Muslim woman living as a Hindu and sent her for rehabilitation, separating her from her Hindu husband. Her baby daughter was also seized, and handed to her Muslim mother.

"This is a disturbing reflection of greater Islamization in the country, regardless of the price to national unity and interracial harmony," said Lim Kit Siang, who chairs the opposition Democratic Action Party.

"The secular basis of the Constitution is being eroded relentlessly."

Rights lawyer Latheefa Koya called forcibly separating families "an affront to Islamic principles."

Under Islam, there is no force, no compulsion," she said. "A person has the freedom to choose whatever he believes."

"To think that we can put people in rehabilitation centers and force them to return to Islam is ridiculous," she said.

Islamic officials often send Muslims who renege on their faith to rehabilitation camps.