Interfaith council to press for amendment on child conversion

Jagir reiterated MCCBCHST’s previous stand that the provisions under the Federal Constitution should be interpreted so that the word ‘parent’ would mean both parents. — Picture by Choo Choy May

(The Malay Mail) – The country’s largest non-Muslim interfaith group has said it will push five states to amend their laws, which currently allows parents to unilaterally decide on the conversion of their children below the age of 18 to Islam.

The Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST) had contributed to public protests against a proposed law for the federal territories with a similar clause, that ultimately resulted in Putrajaya withdrawing the Bill on July 5 under pressure.

But despite the retraction of the Administration of the Religion of Islam (Federal Territories) Bill 2013, the group noted that five states – namely Perak, Kedah, Malacca, Negri Sembilan and Sarawak – were using the contentious phrase ‘ibu atau bapa’ (mother or father) in their enactments, which means that the consent of both parents would not be needed for child conversion cases.

”So the Majlis will work towards ensuring these five states also carry out the amendments needed to bring it in line with the Federal Constitution,” MCCBCHST’s newly-elected president Sardar Jagir Singh said in a speech at its 30th anniversary dinner yesterday.

Jagir said there were many “heart-wrenching” stories involving child conversions, notably the Indira Gandhi case where a Hindu mother was stuck in a legal wrangle with her Muslim convert husband, who had allegedly converted their three children to Islam without her knowledge in 2009.

On July 25 this year, the Ipoh High Court quashed the conversion certificates after ruling that unilateral religious conversions were unconstitutional.

Jagir reiterated MCCBCHST’s previous stand that the provisions under the Federal Constitution – the country’s highest law –  should be interpreted so that the word “parent” would mean both parents.

The Malaysian Bar, politicians across the divide and lawyers have previously called for these five states to change their laws to reflect the position in the Federal Constitution.

Custodial tussles in cases of unilateral child conversions have been a growing concern over the years and provide a high-profile glimpse of the concerns of Malaysia’s religious minorities over the perceived dominance of Islam in the country.

It also highlights the complications of Malaysia’s dual legal systems where Muslims are bound by both civil and syariah laws, the latter of which do not apply to or recognise non-Muslims.

In his speech yesterday, Jagir also listed down the future steps of MCCBCHST, including ensuring the drafting of new laws reflect the “principles of religious freedom, ethnic and cultural pluralism”.

He also said the interfaith group would protect and promote the religious freedom of all as enshrined in Article 11 of the Federal Constitution.

MCCBCHST will also be using legal channels to pursue issues such as the “Allah issue, conversion of minors by single parents”, Jagir said, adding that appeals to the United Nations (UN) would also be done if necessary.

Non-Muslims have been locked in a dispute with some Muslims over the use of the Arabic word “Allah” to describe their god, with the latter group insisting that the word is exclusive to Islam.