A Report on Burial Dilemma
by Executive Secretary of Religious Liberty Commission
He died of diabetes in Kuala Lumpur Hospital on 29 Nov 2006.
His Mykad said Rayappan A/L Anthony, did not bear the word “Islam” and listed his religion as Christian! His temporary identification document issued by the National Registration Department (NRD) testified his religious status. His immediate family members, with whom he had lived for years, confidently affirmed it. How else should a dead person prove that he died as a Christian?
Yet, the Selangor Islamic Affairs Department (MAIS) wanted his body for a Muslim burial believing that he died as a Muslim, while his grief-stricken wife had to fight to give him proper funeral rites. Another legal brawl on whose right to the body after the controversy of M. Moorthy’s case!
It was reported that Rayappan converted to Islam in 1990 to take a second wife, a Muslim woman. His name was changed to Muhamad Rayappan Abdullah. He then renounced Islam through a Deed Poll in 1999 at the NRD (NST, 1 Dec).
On 1st Dec, Shah Alam Syariah High Court granted MAIS an ex-parte order to claim the body (subject to the endorsement of Federal Territory Syariah Court). The order was later revoked for a review. Subpoenas were issued to the daughters to testify on their father’s religious status. Although they did not show up at the court (on grounds that they were non-Muslims), it raised the very question: Can/should Syariah Court subpoena non-Muslims to attend its court proceeding?
“The jurisdiction of the Syariah Court is strictly delineated in the Constitution as being only for Muslims,” said Lawyer Malik Imtiaz Sarwar (NST, 8 Dec). Some opined that the onus of proof lied with the Islamic authorities (i.e. to prove that the deceased did not died as a Christian), not with the Rayappan’s family (i.e. to prove that he died as a Christian).
The Parlimentary opposition leader, Lim Kit Siang, felt that such problem rooted in the 1988 amendment to Article 121 of the Federal Constitution (theSun, 6 Dec). Some lawmakers and lawyers also observed that the clause 121(1A) must be clarified, taking into account the extent of Islamic law under 9th Schedule List II of the Federal Constitution. Earlier in August, the government had declared that it had no intention to review Article 121.
The controversy nevertheless drew the attention of the Cabinet. At a meeting, it decided that the Attorney General should determine the deceased’s religious status (NST, 7 Dec). The case took an abrupt turn thereafter. MAIS dropped its claim citing not having “enough evidence to back its case” (NST, 8 Dec). The body was then released to his Christian family for burial.
The withdrawal inevitably irritated several Muslim quarters, the Malaysian Syariah Lawyers Association in particular. The association demanded an explanation and reportedly said that "MAIS was inconsistent in its decisions and this could erode the confidence of Muslims in the country in the effectiveness of MAIS to function as a bastion for Muslims" (Bernama, 12 Dec).
Certain UMNO MPs felt that cases like this could have been dealt with administratively without having to involve the Syariah court. Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, an MP from Kota Baru, believed that the much contended Interfaith Commission proposal would be useful in situation like this (theSun, 7 Dec). It was also perceived that MAIS’ imprudent action had somehow tarnished the image of Islam.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Rayappan dropped the civil suit (seeking a declaration that she was the lawful wife and her husband died as a Christian) against the Kuala Lumpur Hospital and the government. She, however, planned to sue the Selangor state religious bodies for the “trauma and distress suffered by the family” (malaysiakini.com, 11 Dec).
While we praise God that Rayappan’s case is resolved, many are still wary over the manner the constitutional provisions are interpreted. Is the present legal system sufficient to safeguard the rights of Malaysian citizens of other faiths in a legal muddle like this? Must the Cabinet interfere whenever a similar incident occurs? Constitutionally speaking, should it, an executive branch, meddle in the judicial affairs at all?
As long as there are overzealous religious authorities, as long as the Article 121(1A) is not clarified, people continue to fall prey into the entanglement of dual-legal system. For the surviving family members of Rayappan, Moorthy and many others, what happened remained imprinted indelibly on their memory.
The government must look at the issue more attentively with sensible judgment and without prejudice. There must be a peaceable and just mechanism. For it is easy to imagine the overt hostility arising from such bitter disputes and the potential danger it poses to social stability.
The Christian community continues to pray for justice and righteousness to prevail in the country; all citizens to uphold individual’s religious freedom; the judiciary to interpret of laws wisely; the Religious authorities to respect civil laws as supreme law of the land and have compassion on family members who have lost their loved ones; the government be opened for an effective mechanism to deal with inter-religious matters and to clarify laws that cause problems to justice.