Malaysia's Muslim court orders counseling for woman seeking to renounce Islam

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - A religious court has ordered a Malaysian woman who is trying to renounce Islam to undergo three months of counseling, in the latest legal tussle involving religious freedom in this mostly Muslim nation, news reports said Saturday.

Siti Fatimah, 38, claims she converted from Buddhism to Islam in 1998 because she wanted to marry an Iranian, but she never truly practiced Islamic teachings, the national news agency Bernama and the New Straits Times newspaper reported.

Siti, an ethnic Chinese whose original name was Tan Ean Huang, filed a legal petition to formally renounce Islam in July 2006 after the man left her following nearly two years of marriage, according to the reports.

The Islamic Shariah High Court in northern Penang state on Friday directed Siti to undergo guidance and counseling under the state's Islamic Religious Department for three months to ensure she truly understands Islam, the reports said.

The court is scheduled to rule on Siti's petition on Dec. 3 after the religious department reports its opinion.

Court officials familiar with the case could not immediately be reached for comment.

In previous such cases, Malaysia's Shariah courts — which govern the personal conduct and religious lives of Muslims — have invariably ruled against people trying to renounce Islam.

The most controversial conversion case was that of Lina Joy, a woman born to Muslim parents who failed to get the Federal Court, Malaysia's top civil court, to recognize her conversion to Christianity. The court rejected her appeal to have the "Islam" tag removed from her national identity card in May, saying only the Shariah court could rule over that.

Other court disputes that ended in favor of Muslims have caused anxiety among Malaysia's large ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities — who mostly practice Buddhism, Christianity and Hinduism — that their rights are becoming subordinate to those of ethnic Malay Muslims, who comprise nearly 60 percent of the country's 26 million people.