Page last updated at 10:12 GMT, Thursday, 23 April 2009 11:12 UK

Malaysia tackles child conversion

A Muslim child in Kuala Lumpur (file photo)
Muslims make up about two-thirds of Malaysia's population

Malaysia has banned the religious conversion of children without both parents' consent, local media reports.

The announcement by new Prime Minister Najib Razak is being seen as a major step in easing ethnic tensions in the predominately Muslim country.

It follows a string of legal rows in which converts to Islam changed their children's religion despite protests by their estranged non-Muslim spouses.

Malaysia has a two-tier secular and Sharia court system for family matters.

Children should be brought up in accordance to the common religion at the time of marriage
Law Minister Nazri Abdul Aziz

Non-Muslims - who make up about 40% of Malaysia's population - have complained of discrimination, saying the Islamic Sharia courts tend to assert their greater power over minorities when disputes arise.

Meanwhile, the secular courts that preside over family disputes for non-Muslims say they have no jurisdiction over such cases.

'Running away'

Law Minister Nazri Abdul Aziz said the government had decided that when couples separate, their children must be raised in their common religion at the time of marriage.

"The cabinet feels there is an implied and constructive contract between husband and wife that their children should be brought up in accordance to the common religion at the time of marriage or whatever religion they had agreed their offspring should practice," he said.

He said that religion should not be used as a tool to allow a spouse to run away from his or her responsibility as husband or wife.

He also said that the civil courts were the right place to dissolve a marriage in the event of a spouse converting to Islam.

It comes just days after widespread domestic coverage of the case of a Hindu woman who is challenging her estranged husband's conversion of their three children to Islam.

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