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Last Updated: Thursday, 7 December 2006, 07:29 GMT
Malaysia seeks to avoid faith row
By Jonathan Kent
BBC News, Kuala Lumpur

Muslims take part in Friday prayer at the National Mosque in Kuala Lumpur
Only the Islamic courts can allow a Muslim legally to change faith
Malaysia's cabinet has moved to defuse a row over a body claimed for burial by both the dead man's Christian family and the local Islamic authorities.

The man had converted to Islam when he married. He went back to Christianity later - but in Malaysia only Islamic courts can let Muslims change faith.

Last year, an Islamic court ruled in favour of the religious authorities in a similar case that upset non-Muslims.

The government now says its most senior civil lawyer will take on the case.

Strained relations

Rayappan Anthony converted to Islam when he took a second wife, a Muslim, in 1990.

When that marriage failed, he went back to his first wife, a Christian, and made a formal declaration that he would return to Christianity.

Map of Malaysia
But in Malaysia, only Islamic courts can permit a Muslim legally to change faith and they almost invariably say no.

As a result, Mr Anthony's body has been claimed by both the Islamic department and his first wife's family.

Last year, an Islamic court refused to hear from a Hindu woman who wanted to claim the body of her well-known mountaineer husband. M Moorthy, after the religious authorities argued that he had secretly converted to Islam.

Non-Muslims were outraged when Malaysia's civil courts decided they had no jurisdiction and refused to interfere.

So, perhaps sensitive to this, the government has given this latest case to the attorney-general, its top civil law officer, instead of the Islamic court.

In the past year, relations between Malaysia's religious communities have become increasingly strained.

Thousands from the ethnic Malay majority have demonstrated against people being allowed to leave Islam, while non-Muslims have called for disputes involving Islam and other faiths to be decided in a neutral forum.

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