Sarawak activists call on state gov’t to fulfil promise of religious freedom

A COALITION of Sarawak activists has issued a passionate plea to the state government and Sarawak premier Tan Sri Abang Johari Openg, urging them to fulfil a promise made in 2018 to amend laws and provide clear guidelines for individuals seeking to leave Islam.

On March 3, 2018, Sarawak announced its intention to amend state laws related to religious conversion. This decision comes following a court case involving three individuals seeking to reverse their conversion to Islam.

Sarawak activists commended Abang Johari’s commitment to address this issue in 2018, asserting that it is not a matter of Muslim versus Christian rights but rather the fundamental right to freedom of religion.

Besides, the activists seek to establish an administrative process for obtaining a Letter of Release from Islam, thus eliminating the need for court involvement.

Global Human Rights Federation deputy president Peter John Jaban stated that the current predicament faced by apostates in Sarawak, where cases in the Syariah Court are known for taking an excessive amount of time to resolve. This prolonged process has left many converts uncertain about their ability to be released from the religion, with no cases successfully completed thus far.

“Give me six months to do this,” said Abang Johari, pledging to resolve the matter.

Moreover, Independent Coalition of Natives (ICON) founder Bill Jugah has been actively involved in advocating for these apostates.

Bill has received nearly 20 individual cases related to apostasy, primarily stemming from divorce situations. These cases disproportionately affect women of childbearing age who face social stigma and rejection within their own communities after divorcing their Muslim spouses.

He also stressed that it would be more beneficial to expedite these cases to avoid further tarnishing Islam’s teachings through unintended consequences.

“There are two points to iterate on here. First, the Sarawak premier has given his word based on his statement in a press statement in 2018, to allow a SOP for the state Islamic authority to produce Release Letters for the Home Ministry’s perusal.

“Second, I suggest a minimal fee be exacted in this matter. This is already good enough because these converts were not charged any fee during conversion but may be fined thousands of Ringgit and incur more for Syarie lawyers.

“Islam is a pure religion and cannot be viewed as a money-making scheme by the Sarawak public.”

While Malaysia is predominantly Muslim, Sarawak boasts a higher Christian population than Muslims. The 2020 census revealed that approximately 62.1% of Sarawak’s population practices Christianity, whereas only 19.2% adhere to Islam. This demographic makeup has fueled concerns among non-Muslims, who fear the imposition of Islamic laws despite their Christian majority.

Peter noted the need for Sarawak to adopt a liberal and practical policy. He pledged to address loopholes in state religious laws to ensure that religious freedom is upheld.

To underscore the historical context of religious freedom in Sarawak, Peter delved into the region’s past.

In 1941, the last White Rajah of Sarawak Charles Vyner Brooke introduced the first written constitution, promising self-governance for the people of Sarawak. The constitution’s preamble articulates the principle of freedom of expression and worship.

In the preamble of the Sarawak Constitution of 1941, the Nine Cardinal Principles of the rule of the English Rajah were set out. Principle number five states “That freedom of expression both in speech and in writing shall be permitted and encouraged and that everyone shall be entitled to worship as he pleases.”.

Furthermore, Peter pointed out that even in 1941, concerns regarding religious freedom were evident, and the Cobbold Commission report in the 1960s underscored the importance of complete religious freedom for all in the region.

In 1962, the Sawarak government explicitly declared “complete freedom of religion” as a guarantee in the Federal Constitution.

Peter called on the state government to honour its promise and uphold complete freedom of religion for all residents of Sarawak, regardless of their faith. – Sept 8, 2023


Main photo credit: Harian Metro

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