Malaysia reviews laws on religious conversion

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia is reviewing its laws on religious conversion after a recent run of legal battles over freedom of worship inflamed tensions in the mainly Muslim nation, media said on Monday.

Malaysian courts have declined to recognise conversions involving Muslims, referring them to the country's separate Islamic legal system which ordinarily does not permit Muslims to renounce their faith under law.

"The attorney-general's chambers is studying the matter," Malaysia's de-facto justice minister, Nazri Abdul Aziz, was quoted as telling parliament on Monday.

The attorney-general had formed a special committee, including non-governmental organisations, academics and religious bodies, to study the issue, he said.

"A few meetings were also conducted to discuss possible amendments to the laws related to conversion," he was quoted as saying by news Web site Malaysiakini.

The recent cases have usually involved couples where one partner is Muslim and the other is not. In Malaysia, Muslims cannot marry non-Muslims and it can be almost impossible to legally leave Islam despite a constitutional right to freedom of worship.

The rulings have angered many non-Muslims who believe their constitutional rights are being eroded, but their attempts to voice concern in public have met with a backlash from Muslims who feel conversions threaten Islam.

Islam is Malaysia's official religion and is practiced by about 60 percent of its people.

The ruling coalition is made up of parties representing Malaysia's main races and religions, but the refusal of civil courts to deal with conversions has upset the coalition's junior members, who represent mostly non-Muslim communities.

Nazri, a Muslim, told parliament there was no need to meddle with the jurisdictions of civil and Islamic courts because there was no conflict. The review, he added, would look instead at how to determine a person's religion.

"It is an ongoing process. It is also a sensitive issue and, God willing, a method can be achieved on how to decide on the religion of a person," state news agency Bernama quoted him as saying.