Malaysia's highest civil court urges lawmakers to resolve conflict over jurisdiction between secular and religious courts

Malaysia's highest civil court has urged lawmakers to resolve a conflict over jurisdiction between secular and religious courts, rather than leave the matter for judges to decide, according to court documents seen Thursday.

The unusually frank comments by Federal Court Judge Abdul Hamid Mohamad come amid frustrations among Malaysia's large Buddhist, Christian and Hindu minorities over recent court verdicts in interreligious disputes that favored the Muslim majority and sparked fears about the deterioration of religious freedoms.

The problems arise because of the ambiguity of Malaysian law that operates under a dual justice system: Islamic Shariah courts administer family, marriage and personal cases for Muslims, while civil courts administer the same cases for the minorities.

The Malaysian Constitution does not state which system of justice has the final word when Islam confronts other religions.

In a written judgment delivered Wednesday in a case related to religious law, Abdul Hamid said the conflicts of jurisdiction were becoming more serious, and that the problem is exacerbated because "everyone looks to the court to solve the problem of the legislature."

"That, in my view, is a mistake," Abdul Hamid said in the judgment, which was endorsed by two other judges. "Knowing the inadequacy of the law, it is for the legislature to remedy it, by amendment or by making new law. ... These are not matters that the courts can solve, as the courts owe their jurisdiction to statutes."

Malaysia's founding fathers left the constitution vague to avoid upsetting the ethnic Malay Muslim majority and the ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities at the time of independence from Britain in 1957, when building a peaceful multiracial nation was the priority.

But Abdul Hamid said cultural conditions "have dramatically changed," causing unforeseen jurisdictional headaches.

"After 50 years, the provisions ... will have to be reviewed and updated to meet the present circumstances," he said. "Intermarriages (between ethnic groups) are a common occurrence. Conversion to Islam and re-conversion happens more frequently."

The most controversial recent case was that of Lina Joy, a woman born to Muslim parents who failed to get the Federal Court to recognize her conversion to Christianity. The court rejected her appeal to have the "Islam" tag removed from her national identity card in May, saying only that the Shariah court could rule over that.

Other recent tussles include cases involving custody of children born to parents of different faiths, and one involving a deceased Hindu man who converted to Islam without his family's knowledge and whom Islamic authorities ordered to be buried as a Muslim.

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