KUALA LUMPUR - MALAYSIA said on Thursday it will ban parents from secretly converting children, in a move to cool disputes that have strained race relations in the multicultural country.
The government acted after a furore erupted over the case of an ethnic Indian woman who faced losing custody of her three children after her estranged husband converted them to Islam without her consent.
Cabinet minister Nazri Aziz, part of a high-level team charged with tackling the divisive issue, said the law would be changed so that children's conversions would not be allowed without both parents' consent.
The cabinet decided that when it comes to issues of conversion of the spouse... the religion in which the children should be brought up must be in accordance to the common religion at the time of marriage,' he told reporters.
Conversion rows, including 'body-snatching' cases in which Islamic authorities have battled with relatives over the remains of people whose religion is disputed, are common in Muslim-majority Malaysia.
The tussles have led to allegations that the country is being 'Islamised' and that the rights of ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities are being eroded.
'We have to resolve this once and for all,' Mr Nazri said. 'We have decided on a long-term solution because we expect many more cases will occur.' Malaysia has a dual-track legal system, with the civil courts and the sharia religious courts operating side by side. Non-Muslims say they do not get a fair hearing when family law cases end up in religious courts.
Mr Nazri also said that conversions will no longer be retrospective, meaning that people could not use a change in religion to escape alimony and custody rulings ordered by a civil court.
'At present, once a person converts to Islam, Islamic law is applied retroactively so he is not liable for many demands that he was originally liable for under civil law,' he said.
Mr Nazri said the Attorney-General will review the civil laws that needed to be amended, but that any change to Islamic law would have to be discussed with the sultans of Malaysia's states, who are the guardians of the religion.
A. Vaithilingam, the head of Malaysia's multi-faith association, applauded the move by Prime Minister Najib Razak, who was sworn into power earlier this month with promises of wide-ranging reforms.
'It is a very good beginning as the recognition that a child will remain in his or her original faith despite the conversion of one parent is a welcome move,' he told AFP. 'I see this as the beginning of the prime minister's attempt to try and reunite the various races and improve relations among Malaysians, and non-Muslims are very hopeful about this.' -- AFP