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Last Updated: Wednesday, 15 November 2006, 15:47 GMT
Life as a secret Christian convert
By Linda Pressly
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents

Abandoning Islam for Christianity is such a sensitive issue in Malaysia that many converts find themselves leading a secret, double life.

Malaysian Muslims pray behind of the Koran during a special morning prayer at the National Mosque in Kuala Lumpur
Malay-Muslims make up 60% of the country's population
"If people know that I've converted to Christianity, they might take the law into their own hands. If they are not broadminded, they might take a stone and throw it at me."

Maria - not her real name - is a young Malaysian woman who has lived a secret and sometimes fearful life since she converted from Islam to Christianity.

Apostasy, as it is known, has become one of the most controversial issues in Malaysia today.

Maria became a Christian over a decade ago when she was 18. She says no-one forced her to convert, that she made the decision after studying different religious texts.

If my family find out I am no longer a Muslim they will completely cut me off
Maria

Conversion is deemed so sensitive in Malaysia that even the priest who baptised her refused to give her a baptismal certificate.

And, even now, the church she attends asked her to sign a declaration stating the church is not responsible for her conversion.

"My church says if the authorities come, they are not going to stand up for me. I have to stand up for myself," she said.

Not even Maria's family know she has converted.

"If my family find out I am no longer a Muslim they will completely cut me off. That means my name in the family will be erased.

"I could migrate, but the problem is I want to stay in Malaysia, because this is my country. And I love my family. I just want to live peacefully."

Heated debate

Malay-Muslims make up 60% of Malaysia's population. The rest are mostly Christians, Hindus and Buddhists.

But many Malaysian Muslims believe that people like Maria pose a threat to Islam.

And the debate between those who say Maria should have the right to officially convert, and those who are against apostasy has become so heated that the prime minister has asked both sides not to discuss sensitive religious questions in public.

If the authorities find out, I will be in big trouble
Maria
Fearful of what could happen, Maria would only talk to us on the phone from the privacy of her car.

She is very aware of the possible consequences of her decision to become a Christian if she is discovered.

"If the authorities find out, I will be in big trouble. They will create hell between me and my family, and hell in my life so that I will no longer get any privileges or employment."

Her fears are not unfounded. Another convert - Lina Joy - has been forced to go into hiding since her case went to court.

And at least one of the lawyers involved in that case has had a death threat against him.

Apostasy order

High Court, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (Picture: Linda Pressly)
An apostasy order has to be granted for docmentation to change
Both Lina Joy and Maria want to make their conversion legal.

That means changing the identity cards that state they are Muslim.

Until now, the state has refused to do this until an apostasy order is granted from the Sharia court.

But both women claim they are no longer Muslim, so why should they go to the Sharia court?

For Maria there is a lot at stake. She has a boyfriend who is also a Christian and knows she is too.

The couple want to get married. But while Maria is still officially a Muslim, the only way they could wed in Malaysia would be if he converted to Islam.

And Maria's family - unhappy with her choice of partner - are pressuring him to do just that.

Crucial time

Maria is tired of living a double life.

"It's very frustrating," she tells us tearfully. "It means I have to limit my scope with friends.

"I have to be able to completely trust someone before I dare to reveal myself.

"I know some other secret converts, but I never keep in touch with them.

"I can't let my network widen, because you don't always know who you are dealing with."

I feel that I am all alone in this struggle
Maria
Only a tiny number of people have converted from Islam in Malaysia.

But the coming months will be crucial for them because a decision is expected in the case of Lina Joy.

The outcome of that case may well determine whether Maria will be able to live the life she dreams of - to be married to her boyfriend and live openly as a Christian.

Right now she can't imagine it.

"I feel that I am all alone in this struggle," she says, "and I am frightened because I am alone against the odds."

Crossing Continents was broadcast on Thursday, 16 November 2006, at 1102 GMT.

The programme will be repeated on Monday, 20 November 2006 at 2030 GMT.

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SEE ALSO
Religious freedom in Malaysia
09 Nov 06 |  Crossing Continents
Malaysia faith forum to defy mob
22 Jul 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Pressure on multi-faith Malaysia
16 May 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Malaysia: Islam and multi-culturalism
07 Feb 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: Malaysia
18 Oct 06 |  Country profiles

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