KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) - A Malaysian Christian widow is seeking a swift burial of her husband, whose body remains locked up in a morgue because of a dispute with Islamic authorities over the dead man's faith, a lawyer said Wednesday.
The death of Rayappan Anthony, 71, has reignited a controversy over minority rights in Muslim-majority Malaysia, where decades of multiracial harmony have come into question over concerns that Islam, the official religion, is diminishing other faiths.
The widow and daughters of Rayappan, an ethnic Indian van driver, acknowledge that he converted to Islam in 1990 but say he renounced the religion and returned to Roman Catholicism in 1999 without informing Islamic authorities, who now are also claiming the body for a Muslim burial.
The hospital where Rayappan died on Nov. 29 has refused to hand over the body to anyone until the two parties resolve their dispute. The two sides have filed a series of legal petitions to claim the body but a quick resolution does not seem to be in sight.
Rayappan's family is frustrated by legal red tape in Malaysia's secular and Islamic Shariah courts that is complicating their effort to take possession of the body, said their lawyer, A. Sivanesan.
"The family is in emotional agony because of all this waiting," he said. "The family members hope the government will step in to help them."
Many Buddhists, Christians and Hindus in Malaysia feel their rights are not sufficiently safeguarded by the Constitution and court system. But Muslim leaders have warned that allowing concessions to minorities would mean eroding the status of Islam.
The Islamic Religious Department in Selangor state, near Kuala Lumpur, obtained approval from the Islamic Shariah Court on Friday to claim Rayappan's body from the hospital morgue.
However, the man's family blocked them from doing so by filing a separate petition in the civil High Court.
The Islamic department, meanwhile, applied to the Islamic court for a review of the ruling to let Rayappan's family argue their case. But the family is refusing to appear in the court because they believe it has no jurisdiction since Rayappan had renounced Islam, Sivanesan said.
Rayappan's widow has applied to the civil High Court for a declaration that her husband died a Christian. The case, to be heard Dec. 11, is expected to determine whether the court can order the hospital to release Rayappan's body to his family without the Islamic court's approval.
Government authorities have not commented on the case, indicating that they believe the matter should be resolved in the courts.
The case comes nearly a year after a national debate was sparked by the death of Maniam Moorthy, a former Hindu commando, whose body was taken by Islamic authorities after the Islamic court ruled he converted to Islam before his death.
Moorthy never informed his family of the conversion, and the High Court said it had no jurisdiction to hear his wife's appeal.
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