By BOB TEOH
Bumiputra Christians in Sabah continue to be "converted to Islam" by the National Registration Department (NRD) simply because they have "bin" and "binti" in their names. Sabah churches are seeking urgent solutions to the crisis but none seems to be in sight.
The NRD has made it clear it would continue to list bumiputra Christians in Sabah as Muslims as long as they are known by bin or binti. It would also not rectify past entry errors by way of changing the religion listing back to Christianity in the identity cards (MyKad) of those affected. The NRD would only act upon an order by a Syariah High Court to determine whether those bumiputra Christians whom it had listed as Muslims are not Muslims indeed.
Even if these native Christians get a hearing from the Syariah Court, both the NRD and Islamic authorities may not turn up, thus causing unnecessary delays.
A current test case has been mounted by a 53 year-old widow and her two adult daughters and supported by the respective local churches. All three are from the Dusun Banggi tribe.
Intim binti Lambatan, was born in 1959 in Banggi, the northernmost island in Sabah. Her husband died 20 years ago. She was officially baptised in her church, the Sidang Injil Borneo (SIB) in Limbuak Darat, in Kudat on mainland Sabah seven years ago and issued a Baptism Certificate.
The SIB is the biggest indigenous protestant church in Sabah. Her elder daughter, Norina binti Nuhudan,28, was baptised when she was 15 while her younger daughter, Listin Nuhudan, 22, was baptised when she was 14. Both are also SIB members.
When all three had their religion wrongly classified as "Islam" in their MyKad, they brought the matter up to their pastors. A Christian lawyer from another SIB church in Kota Kinabalu agreed to take up their case but the lawyer had to engage a Muslim counsel to act on their behalf in the Syariah High Court.
In March last year a Christian lawyer, Victoria Jayaseele Martin, was barred from practising in a Syariah court despite having a Diploma in Syariah Law and Practice from the International Islamic University Malaysia, in addition to a University of London law degree.
The test case was initiated several months ago when Intim went to the Kudat office of the Jabatan Hal Ehwal Agama Islam Negeri Sabah – JHEAINS - or the Sabah Islamic Affairs Department, to clarify the status of her religion.
On 25 July, the department wrote to the Syariah Court in Kudat to say that Intim's name is not on record in their Pendaftaran Pengislaman (Islamisation Register).
With JHEAINS's clarification, she made a statutory declaration at the Kudat Magistrate Court stating that she is not a Muslim and that her name is not on the Islamic department's register. She said she was not originally a Muslim but when she applied for her identity card, the word "Islam" was wrongly recorded on it.
But still the NRD would not rectify its error and issue her a new identity card with her correct status as a Christian. It looks like it is Intim's responsibility to first go to the Kudat Syariah High Court for a declaration that she is not a Muslim.
This she did by filing a case against the Ketua Pendafter Muallaf (Chief Registrar of New Believers) of Sabah on 14 August. The Director General of the NRD was cited as the second respondent. She is asking for her status as a Muslim to be deleted from her identity card.
The Kudat Syariah High Court then wrote back to the Islamic Department to investigate further whether Intim is a Muslim on their register. The mention date was twice postponed to last Monday (28 Oct). But both the respondents did not turn up, thus causing more delays.
The problem has long reached a crisis in Sabah when SIB churches could not marry their members as some are found to be "Muslims" in their MyKad and the Registrar of Marriages would not recognise such marriages.
Two years ago, the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship (NECF), of which SIB is a member, met the NRD Director General and his senior officers. NECF was assured that the problem could easily be resolved be those affected filing in what it called a "Borang A" to change the status of their religion.
The NECF was happy with that assurance and posted an advisory on its website: "Fuss-free way to change religion data in MyKad."
"Christians who wish to change their religion to Christianity in their MyKad data are not required to tender any legal documents, such as baptism certificates. They only need to fill in 'Borang A' to effect the change," NECF then said.
"This was confirmed at a recent meeting between NECF Malaysia and top officials from the National Registration Department (NRD)."
But NECF itself pointed out the catch. "This is not applicable if they had been registered as Muslims."
NECF said, at the meeting with NRD officials, it also raised the issue of East Malaysian Christians whose religion in their MyKad is recorded as "Islam" simply because their names carry "bin" and "binti".
"This is a prevailing problem in Sabah and Sarawak where many indigenous citizens have names that carry bin and binti". The NRD automatically assigns their religion as ‘Islam' even though many of them are Christians," according to NECF.
NECF also said the NRD confirmed that those who are affected could change the data in their MyKad provided they had obtained clearance from the Syariah Court.
It looks like NECF had bought a dud – the Borang A assurance by the NRD is just a ruse to continue its "Islamisation" by deception in Sabah.