Hindu Family In Court To Reclaim Relative’s Body Set To Be Buried As Muslim

Islamic authorities in a Malaysian state are seeking custody of a man’s body for burial, saying he was a Muslim convert, but his Hindu family disputes the claim, their lawyer said Thursday (26 June).

It is the latest in a series of religious conversion disputes that erupt regularly in this Muslim-majority country, straining ethnic and racial tensions. The case puts renewed pressure on the government of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who had recently pledged that the rights of Chinese and Indian minorities would not be comprised in disputes with the majority Malays.

B. Elangesvaran, 34, committed suicide by hanging on Sunday, family lawyer R. Nethaji Rayer told The Associated Press.

After the autopsy, hospital authorities refused to release the body, saying they had been informed by the local Islamic Religious Department that Elangesvaran had converted to Islam. The department wants to give him a Muslim burial.

His family has filed a case in a high court in the northern state of Penang, seeking a declaration that he is a Hindu and that his body should be handed over to them, Rayer said.

The Star daily newspaper quoted Elangesvaran’s brother, Selvan, as saying that Islamic authorities had failed to give him proof of conversion.

“I was only served with a police report alleging that my brother had embraced Islam at the Penang Islamic Religious Department … and a letter with some scribbling allegedly done by Elangesvaran that he had converted,” Selvan was quoted as saying.

About 60% of Malaysia’s 27 million people are Malay Muslims, and Islam is the official religion. Non-Muslims _ mostly ethnic Chinese and Indians _ make up 40% of the population. They generally practice their religions freely, but often complain that Islamic authorities refuse to look compassionately at interfaith disputes and flaunt their powers over minorities.

In a bid to appease minority fears, Abdullah announced earlier this year that non-Muslims would soon be required to inform their family before converting to Islam to avoid post-death disputes.

But Elangesvaran’s case showed that Abdullah’s announcement had amounted to nothing, said A. Vaithilingam, who heads a prominent interfaith group.

“It’s again coming back to fighting for the dead body. People who never knew him want to bury him, and his family has no chance to get involved,” said Vaithilingam, president of the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism.

“It’s the same old story. … Every time there is a problem, the government makes a statement to ease tension and then forgets all about it,” he told The Associated Press.

Malaysia has a dual court system with civil courts for non-Muslims and Shariah courts for Muslims. In interfaith disputes involving Islam, the Shariah courts typically get the last word, leading to fears that minority rights are being compromised. (By JULIA ZAPPEI/ AP)

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