Page last updated at 11:27 GMT, Thursday, 8 May 2008 12:27 UK

Malaysian woman can leave Islam

Malaysia map

A religious court in Malaysia has allowed a Muslim convert to leave the Islamic faith, in what is being hailed as a landmark ruling.

Penang's Sharia court ruled that Siti Fatimah Tan Abdullah was free to return to Buddhism, following the collapse of her marriage to a Muslim man.

It was decided she had not had proper counselling during her conversion.

Malaysians are rarely allowed to renounce the faith - those who do can be prosecuted under stringent laws.

Religious rights are a sensitive issue in Malaysia - which is 60% Muslim.

The country has large Hindu, Christian and Buddhist communities - mainly drawn from the ethnic Indian and Chinese minorities.

Liberal interpretation

Malaysia insists a non-Muslim marrying a Muslim must take their faith. Ms Siti, an ethnic Chinese, converted when she married an Iranian Muslim man.

When their marriage collapsed, she filed a case with the Penang court asking to be allowed to revert to being a Buddhist.

The judge found in her favour, saying it was clear she had never practised Islam after her conversion and continued to pray as a Buddhist.

"The court has no choice but to declare that Siti Fatimah Tan Abdullah is no longer a Muslim as she has never practised the teachings of Islam," said Judge Othman Ibrahim.

He instead blamed the state Islamic council for not fulfilling its responsibility of counselling and guiding new converts.

Analysts say the judge used a very liberal interpretation of the law because in many countries converts are treated just like those who are born into Islam - and are prohibited from changing their faith.

Islamic affairs are governed at a state level so this decision may not form a precedent for other parts of Malaysia.

The local religious council in Penang may also appeal against the ruling.

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