Malaysian Wins Court Battle to Become Christian

( [email protected] ) Mar 06, 2009 12:14 PM EST

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — An Islamic court in Malaysia ruled Friday that a man given an Islamic name at birth was a Christian, a rare victory for religious minorities in this Muslim-majority nation.

The man — whose original identity card listed his name as "Mohammad Shah alias Gilbert Freeman" — brought his case to the Shariah court in southern Negeri Sembilan state after the National Registration Department refused to accept he was a Christian and allow him to drop his Islamic name when he applied for a new identity card.

Lawyer Hanif Hassan said his client, who is 61, was raised as a Christian by his mother, and his Islamic name came from his Muslim father, who left the family when he was only 2-months-old. Freeman is married according to Christian rites and has three children who are Christians.

"The Shariah court ruled that he is not a Muslim. He is not practicing Islam, and he hasn't applied to be a Muslim," Hanif told The Associated Press.

He said his client was happy with the Shariah court's decision.

"This is a rare case but it shows that the Shariah courts are not rigid and are able to help resolve inter-religious disputes," he said.

Malaysia has a dual court system. Muslims are governed by the Islamic Shariah courts while civil courts have jurisdiction over non-Muslims. But inter-religious disputes usually end up in Shariah courts, and end in favor of Muslims.

Religious issues are extremely sensitive in Malaysia, where about 60 percent of the 27 million people are Muslims. Buddhist, Christian and Hindu minorities have accepted Islam's dominance but in recent years voiced fears that courts are unfairly asserting the supremacy of Islam, which is Malaysia's official religion.

Freeman sought the court's help because he said he was getting old and he didn't want any confusion over whether he should receive a Christian burial after, Hanif said.

There have been several cases of Islamic authorities claiming the bodies of people they say converted secretly to Islam.

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