Malaysia withdraws controversial one-parent conversion law

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Malaysia has withdrawn an Islamic law which allows one parent to give consent for the religious conversion of a child, reports said Saturday, after an outcry that it discriminated against minorities.

The government has previously considered amending existing legislation so that children's conversion requires the consent of both parents.

Conversion is a sensitive issue in the Muslim-majority nation where members of minority faiths say they do not get a fair hearing under religious courts in custodial cases.

A 29-year-old Hindu woman recently claimed her estranged husband converted their children to Islam without her knowledge after embracing the religion last year. Under Sharia law, a non-Muslim parent cannot share custody of converted children.

Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said the cabinet discussed the issues surrounding the status of a child's religion when the mother or father converts to Islam, reported the Star newspaper.

“We agreed that the bill's withdrawal was necessary to ensure that such cases were resolved in a fair manner to all,” he said.

Public pressure has prompted the government to withdraw the law, said Tian Chua, an MP with People's Justice Party led by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.

“If the law had been pushed through, it would definitely cause tensions in society because the law seems to favor Muslims while other minorities would be denied justice,” he told AFP on Saturday.

The now withdrawn law had come under fire from minority religious groups when it was introduced last week.

Interfaith group Malaysian Consultative Council Of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism had said in a statement that the Federal Territories Bill -- effective for the capital Kuala Lumpur -- was unconstitutional and should be withdrawn.

“Any conversion of a minor by a single parent will cause serious injustice to the non-converting parent and the children of the marriage,” it said.

The Malaysian Bar Council had also said that “unilateral conversion of minor children to any religion by a parent, without the consent of the non-converting parent, is contrary to our constitutional scheme”.

More than 60 per cent of Malaysia's 29 million people are Muslim ethnic Malays, but it also has sizeable Chinese and Indian minorities. Nine per cent of the population are Christians, including 850,000 Catholics.

Conversions of children and “body-snatching” cases -- where Islamic authorities tussle with families over the remains of people whose religion is disputed -- have previously raised tensions in multi-racial Malaysia, where religion and language are sensitive issues.