Banggarma should have complete freedom to choose her own religion
The Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST) refers to the case of Banggarma Subramaniam, 27 (a.k.a. Siti Hasnah Vengarama Abdullah) who has said that she was converted to Islam at the tender age of 7. Banggarma says this was done by the welfare home, whilst the welfare authorities say it was done by her father.
In any case, Banggarma has vigorously and categorically asserted that for most of her life, she has lived as a Hindu and that she is now a Hindu.
We object most strongly to the suggestion by the Honorable Deputy Minster for Islamic Affairs (as reported in the newspapers of 19th November, 2009) that Banggarma must go to the Syariah Court to ascertain her status, a statement repeated by Welfare Department’s Director General Meme Zainal Rashid. Penang Islamic Council President Shabudin Yahaya meanwhile stated that she will have to undergo the standard procedure to leave Islam and to undergo counseling.
We recall that Dr. Syed Ali Tawfil Al-Attas, the Director-General of IKIM, was quoted in The Star of 1st May, 2007 as saying that a child, deemed ignorant, cannot convert to Islam as the child does not understand the “kalimah shahadah” and cannot bear witness of his/her own free will and understanding.
According to Article 11 of the Federal Constitution, every person is guaranteed the freedom to profess and practice his or her religion. It is our view that Banggarma, upon reaching the age of majority, should have complete freedom to choose her own religion without having to go through any procedure or counseling.
In some States, people deemed to be Muslims face possible terms of imprisonment and punishment for “apostasy” or for “attempting to leave Islam” or “insulting the religion of Islam”. This renders illusory their exercise of the freedom of religion protected by our Federal Constitution and by all international norms.
The Syariah Courts only have jurisdiction over “persons professing the religion of Islam”. Banggarma does not profess the religion of Islam – she professes herself to be a Hindu. It is not proper to require her to go to the Syariah Court before she is allowed to profess her religion of Hinduism.
We therefore reiterate our calls, made many times before, for the authorities to put in place legislative reforms to ensure that Islam, and Islamic law, is not forced upon people like Banggarma who do not profess themselves as Muslim.
Rev. Dr Thomas Philips,
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