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Malaysia royalty defers ban on minors' conversion

A council of Malaysia's royalty has deferred a decision on whether to ban religious conversion of minors by one parent without the spouse's consent -- a source of several interfaith disputes in this Muslim-majority nation.

world Updated: Jun 30, 2009 13:36 IST

A council of Malaysia's royalty has deferred a decision on whether to ban religious conversion of minors by one parent without the spouse's consent -- a source of several interfaith disputes in this Muslim-majority nation. A meeting of Malaysia's king and state sultans decided late Monday that they would consult Islamic authorities first before deciding whether to approve a proposed amendment banning such conversions without both parents' consent.

That puts on hold proposed amendments to laws that were aimed at appeasing non-Muslim minorities, who feel their rights have come under threat and that they lose out in conversion disputes. The hereditary monarchs have a largely ceremonial role in Malaysia but they are seen as the guardians of Islam, the official religion, and are revered by Muslim Malays, who make up 60 per cent of the country's 28 million people.

The endorsement of the monarchs is necessary before the government can push any change in religion-related laws through Parliament.

"We follow the rulers' stand," Jamil Khir Baharom, the minister in charge of religious affairs, told The Associated Press Tuesday. He said he could not say how long the monarchs would take to make a decision.

Debate over conversions of minors flared up again earlier this year when a Hindu man converted himself and his three young children to Islam and claimed custody in a Shariah court despite his Hindu wife's objection.

Malaysia has a two-tier court system -- Shariah courts handle civil matters for Muslims, while secular courts rule on those for Christian, Buddhists, Hindus and other religious minorities, who make up 40 percent of the population.

It is unclear which court has the ultimate jurisdiction in disputes between Muslims and non-Muslims, and non-Muslims claim they often lose out. To answer their grievances, the new administration of Prime Minister Najib Razak announced in April that laws would be amended so that one parent alone would no longer be allowed to convert children.

But though the royalty's deferment puts off any quick resolution, some groups welcomed the postponement, saying such amendments needed to be studied carefully by all sides first.

"I think the most important issue is to get it done right," said Ragunath Kesavan, president of the Malaysian Bar Council. "It is not to the benefit of anyone rushing it through." Ragunath said drafts of the laws should be publicly circulated before being tabled in Parliament for approval. The Bar Council, which represents some 10,000 lawyers, has been lobbying for discussions on conversions and amendments to the laws to avoid ambiguity.

Rev Hermen Shastri, general secretary of the Council of Churches of Malaysia, said he hoped the royals would uphold the proposed legal changes.