26 Oct 2010

Malaysian groups welcome ‘common religion’ ruling for children

The Star - Malaysia April 25, 2009

PETALING JAYA: Several religious bodies, political bureaus and non-governmental orga­nisations commended the Cabinet on its decision that children of divorced parents be brought up in the common religion at the time of marriage when one parent converts to ano­ther religion.

Malaysian Interfaith Network coordinator Dr Jonathan Gurusamy said religion was a personal choice and children should be given the opportunity to choose only when they were old enough to make sound judgments.

“The Cabinet made a wise and just choice,” he said.

Buddhist Chief High Priest of Malaysia Venerable K. Sri Dhammaratana said that children needed to understand the religion they were embracing. “Mutual consent from parents is also needed,” said Dhammaratana.

Malaysian Buddhist Association assistant secretary Lim Tien Phong said the decision reflected the broad-mindedness of the Government.

“ It complements the 1Malaysia concept as it will bring the people together by reducing the religious tensions that we face,” he said.

National Evangelical Christian Fellowship secretary-general Sam Ang hoped that the Attorney-General would come up with proper guidelines that would be fully implemented.

The Joint Action Group (JAG) for Gender Equality said the Cabinet’s decision was a bold and sensible move as it would put an end to unilateral conversion of a child.

Speaking on behalf of JAG, Women’s Aid Organisation executive director Ivy Josiah Josiah, said: “The Cabinet’s decision reflects a principle that there cannot be a unilateral decision when converting a child. It also recognises that civil marriages are binding.”

However, Josiah said one should not forget about the divorce, maintenance and inheritance issues which needed to be addressed should a spouse convert to another religion.

“We maintain and support any person’s right to convert. But the conversion should not have a retrogressive effect on the non-converting spouse or take away their rights.”

Sisters in Islam’s programme manager Norhayati Kaprawi said the Cabinet’s “bold and progressive position” was a step in the right direction towards fostering a harmonious relationship among people of all faiths.

MCA Legal Bureau chairman Datuk Leong Tang Chong said the decision would alleviate the constant conflict of jurisdiction between civil and syariah courts.

The groups also agreed that if both parents were free-thinkers at the time of marriage, then their children shouldn’t be forced to convert if one of them changed religion.

Lawyers A. Sivanesan and M. Kulasegaran, who are assisting kindergarten teacher Indira Gandhi in her child custody case, said the decision on conversion should be made into law.

“A directive has no legal effect in the court of law. It may be persuasive in court but it has no legal effect,” said Sivanesan.

Tanjung Malim MP Datuk Seri Ong Ka Chuan said the practice by a partner to use religion to gain an unfair advantage over an estranged spouse was an abuse of religion.

International Movement for a Just World president Dr Chandra Muzaffar hoped the sensible proposals would be supported by the state muftis and other religious authorities.

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