WASHINGTON – American Christian leaders called the recent ruling by Malaysia's top civil court against a Christian convert seeking recognition a "set-back" that reveals the country's "flawed" legal system.
"This verdict is obviously a set-back for religious freedom in Malaysia," said Todd Nettleton, director of media development of Voice of the Martyrs USA, to The Christian Post on Wednesday.
"We had hoped that the courts would give the people of Malaysia the right to choose and change their religion according to the dictates of their conscience," he added.
Lina Joy, 43, lost the court battle to change her religion from Islam to Christianity on Wednesday when the Federal Court ruled she should seek permission to officially change her religion from Islam to Christianity at Islamic Shariah courts.
Joy had been engaged in a legal battle for six years with this most recent court appeal being her last real chance to gain legal status as a Christian in Malaysia.
With Wednesday's court ruling, Joy now again faces Shariah courts, where apostasy is mostly considered a crime punishable by heavy fines or imprisonment.
"I am disappointed that the Federal Court is not able to vindicate a simple but important fundamental right that exists in all persons: Namely, the right to believe in the religion of one's choice," Joy said in a statement released through her lawyer, Benjamin Dawson, according to The Associated Press.
"The Federal Court has not only denied me that right but [denied it] to all Malaysians who value fundamental freedoms," she stated.
Joy was born and raised a Muslim but began to attend church in 1990. She then received baptism in 1998. Because she is still legally a Muslim, she is unable to marry her Catholic Indian fiancé in Malaysia.
Many Christians and religious freedom advocates are discouraged by Malaysia's ruling since the country is considered to be one of the most progressive and modern Muslim democracies.
"This is the challenge in most Muslim countries, and in my mind is really the mark of true religious freedom: Does a person have the right to change their faith?" said Nettleton. "Does a Muslim have the right to leave Islam and follow Christ? If a country's citizens don't have the right, then how can that country claim to have religious freedom?"
The Malaysian Constitution has been criticized as self-contradictory by analysts who point to the fact it both defends freedom of religion and declares Islam the official religion, according to the New York Times.
"After 50 years of independence it appears that Malaysia's High Court has tipped the future of the country toward Islamization by ruling that Shariah law takes precedence over civil laws," remarked the Rev. Dr. Keith Roderick, Washington representative of Christian Solidarity International, to The Christian Post. "The courts have ruled that there will be no 'exit visas' from Islam; religious freedom itself is subject to the limitations imposed upon it by Islamic law.
"It reveals the flaw of parallel legal jurisdictions - one ruled by secular civil court the other by religious law," he added. "In essence, the High Court has sentenced Lina to life as a prisoner of her own act of conscience. Muslim by legal obligation, Christian by conviction – Lina is now an exile in her own country."
About 60 percent of Malaysia's 26 million people are Muslims.
Joy hinted that she might leave Malaysia to openly and legally practice her faith in a statement released on Thursday, according to AP.