KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - A Malaysian has won a battle to give his dead wife a Christian funeral after Islamic religious authorities dropped their claim to the body on the grounds of her conversion to Islam.
The row over the corpse of Wong Sau Lan, a 54-year-old ethnic Chinese woman who died on Dec. 30, was the latest in a series of disputes in mostly Muslim Malaysia that have upset non-Muslims, who fear authorities are trampling on their religious rights.
“It was harrowing to wait for 18 days,” said Ngiam Tee Kong, who was at his wife’s bedside when she died in a Kuala Lumpur hospital and then suffered several sleepless nights during the custody fight for the remains.
“I’m definitely relieved. Hopefully it will be over in a few days.”
Ngiam, 53, the manager of a snooker game centre, said his ordeal began the day his wife died of kidney failure, when police told him she had converted to Islam by reciting Arabic verses during a session with a traditional healer a week earlier.
But Ngiam, himself a Buddhist, challenged this version of events, maintained that his wife was a Christian baptised in November, and asked a Malaysian court to intervene.
“The high court has ordered that the body of the deceased be released to the husband forthwith,” his lawyer Karpal Singh told reporters outside the court, adding that the body would be cremated according to Christian rites after a two-day wake.
“The Islamic affairs council has said the conversion of the deceased was not in accordance with Islamic law, and therefore they have no objections to the body being released to the husband,” he said.
Race ties, always a delicate issue in multi-racial Malaysia, have become increasingly sensitive as speculation grows that the government could call for snap polls as soon as March.
The spectacle of non-Muslims battling for funeral rights of relatives is not new in Malaysia, where disputes over religious conversions and complaints about demolitions of churches and Hindu temples have fuelled fears of a surge in hardline Islam.
In another case in 2006 involving an ethnic Indian said to have converted to Islam, religious authorities also eventually climbed down and allowed the family of van driver Rayappan Anthony, 71, to reclaim his body for Christian burial.
But in 2005, as Islamic officials prepared to bury former soldier and mountain climber M Moorthy against his Hindu widow’s wishes, the High Court said it had no jurisdiction over such religious matters, leaving non-Muslims unsure of their rights.
Politically dominant ethnic Malay Muslims form about 60 percent of Malaysia’s population of roughly 26 million, while the ethnic Indian and Chinese minorities include Hindus, Buddhists and Christians.
“This is a very serious case because the council should be more careful in future,” said Singh.
“It must ascertain that any conversion is made according to Islamic law, not snatch a body and refuse to release it on the grounds that there is a conversion when there is not one, later admitting there was no lawful conversion.”
Ngiam and his two children would seek damages from the hospital and the Islamic affairs council for the trauma they suffered, the lawyer added.