Malaysian state criminalizes proselytizing, Christian conversions; violators face jail and canings

A woman prays at church in Malaysia.
A woman prays at church in Malaysia. | (Photo: Reuters)

The northeastern Malaysian state of Kelantan has implemented amendments to its criminal code based on sharia law, banning about two dozen activities, including attempts of converting out of Islam. Violators could face prison, fines or canings.

The Kelantan Syariah Criminal Code (I) Enactment 2019 went into effect on Nov. 1, making 24 activities illegal, The Star newspaper reports

Banned activities include proselytizing, distorting Islamic teachings, disrespecting the month of Ramadan, destroying houses of worship, tattooing, undergoing plastic surgery, engaging in sexual intercourse with corpses and non-humans, witchcraft and false claims.

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The new offenses are punishable by imprisonment up to three years and a fine up to RM5,000 (US$1,202) or six strokes of the cane.

The amendments to the state’s criminal code, proposed in 2019, are based on the Syariah Criminal Code (II) 1993 and the existing 1985 Syariah Criminal Code. The state sultan, Muhammad V, gave consent to the amendments in July 2020.

Kelantan Chief Minister Ahmad Yakob has said during a program on Oct. 31 that the enforcement of the new bans will help strengthen the sharia law not only in Kelantan but also in other states in the Muslim-majority Southeast Asian country.

He was also quoted as saying that the enforcement seeks to educate and bring the violators back to the right path of Islam and is not simply a means to punish them.

Malaysia is 66% Muslim and less than 10% Christian, according to The Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures Project. 

Open Doors USA’s 2021 World Watch List ranks Malaysia as the 46th-worst country globally when it comes to Christian persecution. In Malaysia, Christians have suffered from many forms of Islamic repression. 

According to Open Doors USA, which monitors persecution in over 60 countries, Catholics and Methodists are monitored by authorities in Malaysia. Still, nontraditional Protestant groups are more often targeted because they tend to be more active in evangelism. Open Doors reports that it is illegal to share the Gospel with Malaysian Muslims.

Responding to the new ban, the U.S.-based persecution watchdog International Christian Concern notes that critics in Malaysia are concerned the new enactment could contribute to an exclusive and intolerant Islam.

The women’s rights group Sisters in Islam expressed concern that these developments violate fundamental principles of democracy because they suppress critical thought and expression.

The new enactment comes as the case of Malaysian Pastor Raymond Koh remains unsolved. Koh has been missing since he was abducted in a well-organized, military-style operation more than four years ago after being accused of preaching to Muslims.

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