Islamic court says Muslim convert can return to Buddhism

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - A Malaysian Islamic court allowed a Muslim convert Thursday to return to her original faith of Buddhism, setting a precedent that could ease religious minorities' worries about their legal rights.

Lawyers said the Shariah High Court's verdict in the northern state of Penang was the first time in recent memory that a convert has been permitted to legally renounce Islam in this Muslim-majority nation.

A rising number of disputes about religious conversions has sparked anxiety among minorities - predominantly Buddhist, Christian and Hindu - because in the past courts virtually always ruled against people seeking to leave Islam.

Penang's Shariah court, however, granted Siti Fatimah Tan Abdullah's request to be declared a non-Muslim. She embraced Islam in 1998 because she wanted to marry an Iranian, but claimed she never truly practiced the religion.

"I am very happy," Siti, a 39-year-old ethnic Chinese cake seller, told The Associated Press by telephone. "I want to go to the temple to pray and give thanks."

The Shariah court, which governs Muslims' personal conduct and religious lives, ruled that Siti's husband and Islamic authorities failed to give her proper religious advice.

"So you can't blame her for her ignorance of the teachings and wanting to convert out," said Ahmad Munawir Abdul Aziz, a lawyer for the Islamic Affairs Council in Penang.

Siti must still ask the government registration department to have her name and religion changed back on her identification papers. She was not expected to face any problems, because the court ruled in her favor.

"It's a landmark decision," said Siti's lawyer, Ahmad Jailani Abdul Ghani. "This is the first time in Malaysia" in recent memory that someone has been allowed to convert back, he said.

Siti filed her request in 2006 after her husband left her. She was subsequently ordered to undergo counseling to ensure she truly understood Islam.

Malaysia's most high-profile conversion case was that of Lina Joy, a woman who was born to Muslim parents and failed to get the Federal Court, Malaysia's top civil court, to recognize her conversion to Christianity last year.

Malaysia has a dual court system with civil courts for non-Muslims and Shariah courts for Muslims. In interfaith disputes involving Islam, the Shariah courts typically get the last word, which has upset non-Muslims who fear they cannot get justice in such courts.

Court disputes that ended in favor of Muslims have caused minorities to worry that their rights have become subordinate to those of ethnic Malay Muslims, who make up nearly 60 percent of Malaysia's 27 million people.

Political observers say religious grievances contributed to the governing coalition's poor performance in March elections, in which the coalition lost its two-thirds majority in Parliament.