SARAWAK, Malaysia - Crowds gathered on Tuesday outside the Supreme Court building in Kuching, Sarawak, to await a ruling that could potentially change the way the government views apostates.
Four Malays requested that the court officially recognize their conversion out of Islam.
The first appellant, former Muslim Syarifah Nooraffyzza, had voluntarily and without compulsion left the religion of Islam to embrace Christianity. The other appellants, Tiong Choo Ting, Salina Jau, and Jenny Binti Peter, were former Christians but converted to Islam in order to marry Muslims.
Tiong is widowed, while Salina and Jenny were divorced by their Muslim husbands. All three have voluntarily returned to their Christian faith.
The appellants made repeated requests to the National Registration Department to change the names on their national identity cards to their new, non-Muslim names. Those requests were denied and they were told they would need to obtain a "letter of release" from the Sarawak Islamic Department to declare that they are no longer Muslim.
However, the Sarawak Islamic Department replied that based on Islamic ordinances, there are no provisions that confer jurisdiction for their department to issue a declaration to leave Islam. Thus, the appellants went to the Supreme Court and asked that it decide whether conversion out of Islam is a matter for civil or Sharia courts to decide.
After much anticipation, the Supreme Court ruled that the four appellants should go to the Sharia courts if they want to leave Islam legally. A commotion ensued as a group of Islamic hardliners became rowdy, chanting loudly after the decision was announced.
In the past, Sharia courts have not allowed conversion from the Islamic faith. Typically, they refer the persons for counseling. But Malay Christians were encouraged by a landmark high court ruling in February 2016 when 41-year-old Rooney Rebit was allowed to identify as a Christian. He was converted to Islam by his parents at the age of 10.
Meanwhile, the Sarawak Ministers' Fellowship, an alliance of church leaders in Sarawak, is rallying churches to pray for a solution because they believe the issue at hand "is about safeguarding the religious freedom that our forefathers fought hard for us."
Sarawak, the biggest state among the 13 states of Malaysia, has population that is more than 40 percent Christian.
Attorney Eugene Yapp, director of RFL Partnership, an NGO (non-governmental organization) promoting religious freedom, said Christians may seek a political solution by amending Sharia legislation to allow people to leave Islam, "but this is tough to get due to Muslim-majority sensitivity."
He also said despite what many people around the world may think, Malaysia is not a moderate Muslim country upholding democratic values.
"Beneath the modernity of Malaysia," he said, "religious laws and Sharia are beginning to impact the lives of non-Muslims in the country."