Malaysia court hears landmark dispute on religious conversion

May 4, 2010
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Kuala Lumpur, August 25, 2009/Bazuki Muhammad

Malaysia’s highest court has begun proceedings on a landmark inter-religious child custody dispute whose outcome could further raise political tension in this mainly Muslim country.  The Federal Court heard objections by lawyers for an ethnic Indian couple fighting each other for custody of their two children and adjourned for two weeks before hearing the case.

A Hindu woman, Shamala Sathiyaseelan, won temporary custody of her two children in 2004 following her husband’s conversion to Islam. She is seeking full custody and a declaration that it is illegal under Malaysia’s constitution for a parent to convert a minor to Islam without the other’s consent.

Malaysia’s dual-track legal system where Muslims fall under Islamic family laws while non-Muslims come under civil laws has led to overlaps and unresolved religious disputes that have fuelled minority unhappiness and raised political tensions.

“This is a fundamental constitutional question being brought up for the first time, and a lot of other cases will abide by the ruling on this case,” Shamala’s lawyer, Cyrus Das, told reporters.

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