Malaysia bans forced conversion of minors to Islam

KUALA LUMPUR Thu Apr 23, 2009 7:17pm IST

A Malaysian Muslim girl walks through an aisle at the end of a ceremony on the first day of Moharram, which marks the start the Muslim new year, in Putrajaya January 10, 2008. REUTERS/Bazuki Muhammad

A Malaysian Muslim girl walks through an aisle at the end of a ceremony on the first day of Moharram, which marks the start the Muslim new year, in Putrajaya January 10, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Bazuki Muhammad

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KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysia has banned the forced conversion of children to Islam to quell unease among religious minorities in the mainly Muslim nation, the country's Legal Affairs Minister said on Thursday.

The decision follows the highly publicized case of Indira Gandhi, a 34-year-old ethnic Indian Hindu woman whose estranged husband embraced Islam and then converted their children to the religion as well.

Minister Nazri Aziz said minors were to be bound by the common religion of their parents while they were married even if one parent later becomes a Muslim.

Islamic law will also apply only from the point of a person's conversion to the religion and is not retrospective, he told a press conference.

"We have to resolve this once and for all. I don't think we should be deciding on a piecemeal basis every time a conversion issue crops up," Nazri said.

"We have decided on a long-term solution because we expect more cases will occur, being a multiracial country," he added.

Islam is the official religion in Malaysia, but non-Muslims are allowed to practice their faiths.

Muslims, who make up around 65 percent of the Southeast country's 27 million population, are bound by Islamic family laws, while civil laws apply to non-Muslims.

Nazri said the Attorney-General had been instructed to look at the relevant legislation that would need to be amended to effect the decision.

The Attorney-General would also be asked approach the Malay rulers -- titular heads in nine of Malaysia's 13 states who are in charge of Islamic affairs in their respective states -- to seek consent for amendments to related state Islamic laws, added Nazri.

There has been growing unease among Malaysia's mainly Chinese and Indian ethnic minorities who are mostly Buddhists, Christians and Hindus over numerous complaints of discrimination and unfair treatment by the authorities when seeking legal redress following cases of divorce and religious conversions.

The disquiet built up during the case of Lina Joy, a Malay Muslim who converted to Christianity at the age of 26 but was forced to endure a long legal battle to have her conversion legally recognized by the Malaysian courts.

(Reporting by Razak Ahmad; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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