Malaysian state stiffens penalties to stifle Muslim conversions

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - People who try to convert Muslims to other religions could face a whipping, a fine and longer prison terms in a state ruled by a conservative Islamic party in northeast Malaysia, an official said Wednesday.

The Kelantan state legislature approved changes to the law Tuesday providing for a maximum punishment of six lashes with a rattan cane, five years in prison and a fine of 10,000 ringgit (US$2,800; €2,080) for non-Muslims who preach to Muslims, said Hassan Mohamood, who heads the state's Islamic affairs government committee.

Previously, the maximum penalty was two years in prison and a fine of 5,000 ringgit (US$1,400; €1,040), but state officials feel stiffer laws are useful "as a form of deterrence," Hassan told The Associated Press.

Proselytizing of Muslims is forbidden in Malaysia, where nearly 60 percent of the country's 26 million people are ethnic Malay Muslims. Such cases are rare, and people found guilty face prison terms in most states. However, the amended penalties in Kelantan — which has been ruled since 1990 by the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party — are believed to be the heaviest nationwide.

Malay Muslims who try to convert to other religions are often sent by Malaysian authorities for counseling and rehabilitation, and some have also been imprisoned for apostasy. In a recent high-profile case that raised concerns about religious rights, a woman who was born to Muslim parents failed to get the country's highest civil court to recognize her conversion to Christianity.

Freedom of worship is guaranteed in the constitution for other religions. Malaysia has large ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities that mostly practice Buddhism, Christianity and Hinduism.