Malaysia's highest court has rejected a six-year appeal by a Malay woman to have her Christian identity officially recognized.
The Federal Tribunal ruled that only the Shariah (Islamic law) Court could allow Lina Joy, 42, to remove the word Muslim from her identity card.
"You can't at whim and fancy convert from one religion to another," said judge Ahmad Fairuz Sheikh Abdul Halim reading the court's decision on Wednesday.
The verdict ends a legal battle that began in 2001 when Joy asked the courts to recognize her conversion to Christianity.
Joy was born Azlina binti Jailani into a Muslim and ethnic Malay family. However, in 1998, she converted to Catholicism.
At that time, the Civil Registry of Marriages refused her application to marry a Catholic man because she had a Muslim name. The country’s Civil Marriage provision prohibits Muslims from registering marriages as civil ones.
She managed to have her name changed to Lina Joy in 1999, but the Muslim designation on her identity card remained despite her declaration that she is a Christian. The government’s Registration Department refused to change the designation, insisting instead that she seek an order from the Shariah Court, stating that she had become an apostate.
She took the matter to the courts, expecting that her right to religious freedom would trump civil policy. But the court pointed to a provision in the federal constitution that defines Malays as Muslim. In other words, Malays cannot renounce Islam because Islam is inherent to their identity as an ethic group. The court ultimately referred Joy to the Shariah Court.
The likelihood that the Shariah Court would rule that Joy could renounce her Muslim identity was slim since no other ethnic Malay has ever been granted the same, reports The Wall Street Journal.
The verdict has confirmed the predominance of Islam over other religions in the country, which is likely to increase the dissatisfaction of the Christian, Hindu and Buddhist minorities.