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Malaysia hospital ignites new religious controversy

Written by: Staff

KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 5 (Reuters) A Malaysian hospital has ignited fresh religious controversy after it refused to hand over a dead man's body to his widow because she planned to give her husband, a Muslim convert, a Christian burial.

The widow, 69-year-old Lourdes Mary Maria Soosay, wants a court to order hospital authorities to hand over the body of her 71-year-old husband, van driver Rayappan Anthony, whose religious beliefs at the time of his death last week are in question.

It is the second time in about a year that a non-Muslim has fought for funeral rights over a loved one. In the first, state Islamic officials gave a former soldier a Muslim burial against the wishes of his Hindu widow, setting off a storm of protest.

''It's known as corpse-snatching,'' A Sivanesan, lawyer for Lourdes Mary, told Reuters today, after the family complained to police over harrassment by Islamic religious authorities.

''You don't bother about the man when he is alive. When he dies you come and snatch the body.'' He said Lourdes Mary's husband had renounced Islam and resumed practising Christianity in 1999.

Islamic religious officials were not notified of his renunciation and want him buried as a Muslim, Sivanesan added.

He said his client had ignored an order to appear before a sharia or Islamic religious court to resolve the matter because she was not a Muslim and such a court had no authority over her.

Last year, as state Islamic officials prepared to bury former soldier and mountain climber M Moorthy against his widow's wishes, the High Court said it had no jurisdiction over such religious matters, leaving non-Muslims unsure of their rights.

The move even triggered a protest from some cabinet ministers in Malaysia's multi-racial ruling coalition.

Whether Muslims can convert to another faith is a tricky legal question in Malaysia where freedom of religion is a constitutional right, though Islam is the official religion.

Ethnic Malays, who make up just over half of a population of 26 million, are deemed to be Muslims from birth, but the country's highest civil court has yet to rule on whether they have the right to convert to another religion.

In the latest case, the widow has taken a different legal tack to avoid the constitutional question.

Lawyer Sivanesan said the authorities had effectively recognised that Rayappan had given up Islam when they gave him a new identity-card five years ago that stated he was a Christian. The law requires Malaysians to have an identity-card.

Sivanesan said his case focused on getting the government hospital to honour its obligations to its client and return his body to his next of kin.

''This is the first case in which the religious body (Islamic affairs department) has not been named as a party,'' he added.

Hospital authorities could not be reached for comment.


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