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Conversion law easily exploited in custody cases, warns Muslim women group

The proposed law on unilateral conversions of children to Islam can be exploited to secure child custody in divorce cases, a Muslim women’s group said today.

Sisters in Islam (SIS) programme manager Suri Kempe also said that parents should not convert their children to Islam on their behalf, stressing that religious conversions should be initiated by children on their own free will when they understand the significance of such conversions.

“It creates a loophole that people can exploit,” Suri told The Malay Mail Online today, referring to the Administration of Islam (Federal Territories) Bill 2013 which permits unilateral conversion for children below 18 years.

“Why are we encouraging people to convert in silence? Sometimes parents do it out of spite because they want to get custody. It’s inherently unfair and unjust,” she added.

Suri highlighted the case of R. Subashini, where the Federal Court ruled in 2007 that her husband – who had embraced Islam – had the right to convert their children to his faith without her consent, leading to the Hindu mother’s fears of losing child custody.

Non-Muslim groups, the Malaysian Bar and politicians on both sides of the divide have denounced the Bill – which allows children below 18 years to be converted to Islam with the consent of just one parent – as unconstitutional.

Tourism and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Mohamed Nazri Aziz also voiced his opposition towards the Bill today, maintaining his stand back in 2009 when he was a minister in the Prime Minister’s Department that both parents must consent before a child can convert to Islam.

The former de facto law minister pointed out today that unilateral conversions of minors to Islam violated the Federal Constitution.

Four years ago, Nazri said the government would ban the unilateral conversion of those aged below 18 to Islam. But Section 107(b) of the Bill was introduced in Parliament last Wednesday.

Suri also noted today that conversions to Islam are especially significant as it is “very hard” for a Muslim to leave the faith in Malaysia.

“In theory, the constitution provides for it,” said Suri. “But in reality, it’s very hard.”

Selangor PAS commissioner Dr Abd Rani Osman said yesterday that the conversion of children to Islam should require the consent of both parents as religious conversions are a “big issue”.

Custodial tussles in cases of unilateral child conversions have been a growing concern over the years and provide a high-profile glimpse of the concerns of Malaysia’s religious minorities over the perceived dominance of Islam in the country.

It also highlights the complications of Malaysia’s dual legal systems where Muslims are bound by both civil and syariah laws, the latter of which does not apply to or recognise non-Muslims.

The latest case is that of a Hindu mother in Negri Sembilan, who discovered in April that her estranged husband had converted their two underage children to Islam after he had done so a year earlier without her knowledge.