Friday, April 11, 2008

Malaysia to act on Islamic conversion rows

Malaysia on Thursday proposed new rules on converting to Islam, in a bid to prevent wrangles that have split families and incited racial tensions in this multicultural country.

"We are working on a law that non-Muslims who are converting to Islam must inform their spouse and family," Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said after meeting Islamic religious authorities.

"They will have to fill out a form and declare that they have informed their family of the pending conversion," he said.

The move follows a series of allegations of "body-snatching" by Islamic authorities, who have seized remains for burial according to Muslim rites, against the objections of non-Muslim family members.

The proposals are an olive branch to Malaysia's minority ethnic Chinese and Indians who are uneasy over rising "Islamisation" and have turned away from the government, which is dominated by Muslim Malays.

The coalition government's mis-handling of race issues is credited as one of the factors behind its drubbing in March 8 elections, when it lost a third of parliamentary seats and five states in its worst-ever results.

Abdullah said there had been many cases where non-Muslims had converted to Islam quietly without informing their families.

"This has resulted in a clash between religions when the person dies and the Islamic authorities try to claim the body but are opposed by family members who were not informed of the conversion," he said.

"This has caused much ill-will among the various religions."

In the most recent case, an elderly ethnic Chinese man was buried as a Muslim in January after his Buddhist family lost a battle with Islamic authorities who said he had converted.

Police seized the body of Gan Eng For after his eldest son -- himself a Muslim convert -- said he had switched to the religion. Other family members said that was impossible because he was senile and paralysed from strokes.

In many instances the rows have been decided by Islamic Sharia courts, where non-Muslim family members argue they do not get a fair hearing.

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