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NGO Statement on Freedom of Religion in Malaysia

Contact: Gregory Treat, 703-503-0791

GENEVA, March 9, 2018 /Christian Newswire/ -- On Tuesday, March 6, 2018 the undersigned NGOs sponsored a side-event at the UN in Geneva, during the 37th Regular Session of the Human Rights Council.
A panel of distinguished experts, including Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief; along with a special video message from Baroness Elizabeth Berridge, Member of the UK House of Lords, Chair of the International Panel of Parliamentarians and Project Director of The Commonwealth Initiative for Freedom of Religion or Belief, spoke on the need for religious minorities to freely practice their religion without restrictions or fear of discrimination. Malaysia is often admired as a moderate Muslim-majority country that upholds democratic values and human rights. Unfortunately, deep-rooted racial and religious prejudices due to the politicization of religion has seriously imperiled the pluralistic nature of this important nation.

The panel also expressed their concern that persons who have converted into Islam due to marriage or other reasons should be allowed to freely choose their religion and change their religious status and names in their ID cards without the need to appear before the Sharia courts. To impose such a condition is certainly against the spirit of freedom of religion.

As Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief noted:

    "You cannot force anyone to declare their religion, and when that is done, especially on ID cards, they may be used as a way to discriminate on access to services, sometimes to very basic services. So in all contexts where religion appears on an ID card it becomes an instrument for discrimination or privileged treatment on account of religion."

As Malaysia is a multi-religious country, freedom of religion is paramount to ensure that peace, harmony and social order of Malaysia is maintained and that justice is served for all persons.

As Eugene Yapp, Director of RFL Partnership said, "this can be best achieve through observing the 'twin pillars of moderation' - one religious group should not dictate to another religious group how she should practice and manage her own religion; and state authorities should not impose its will on any one religious group."

The recent appeal of four persons who wish to leave Islam in Sarawak who had raised the issue of which should be the proper forum to decide on their conversion out of Islam is a case in point. The decision by the Federal Court that this matter belongs solely to the jurisdiction of the Sharia court is a condition imposed by the State against the decades old way of Sarawakian life which practices complete religious freedom. This condition has now caused considerable hardship to people who has been wrongly categorised as Muslims.

As Gayle Jokinin, attorney said "leading up to the formation of Malaysia, the people of North Borneo and Sarawak were guaranteed complete freedom of religion...what we see today 55 years later is not what we bargained for."

However, the panel noted that there were significant opportunities for Malaysia to move forward with positive solutions, in particular the upcoming UPR process, which will allow Malaysia to engage in a dialogue with all components of its civil society, including religious minorities. Baroness Berridge, in a special video message, particularly urged Malaysia to participate in the intergovernmental Commonwealth network whose diversity of religious backgrounds offered a unique perspective on dealing with Freedom of Religion and Belief issues.

The undersigned NGOs welcome the panel's discussion and call on Malaysia to:

  1. Bring its ID cards in line with the requirements of Article 18 of the UDHR, by removing any indication of religious status on its ID card.
  2. Repeal any de jure apostasy or blasphemy codes, and make policy provisions to prevent the de facto enforcement of such codes by governmental or nongovernmental actors.
  3. Take concrete steps to implement Malaysia's international commitment to promote and protect the rights of all people to worship in peace and security without discrimination or restriction on the basis of religious belief or practice.

Jubilee Campaign, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, ADF International, World Evangelical Alliance, The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.