An ethnic Indian Malaysian was buried with Islamic rites yesterday after his Hindu widow lost a court battle over his religious identity, in a sensational case that has the potential to blow into a racial firestorm.
The High Court ruled in favor of the Islamic Affairs Department, allowing it to take possession of the body of ex-army commando M. Moorthy. The body has been lying in a legal limbo at a Kuala Lumpur hospital since Moorthy's death on Dec. 20 after seven years of paralysis.
The court rejected an appeal by Moorthy's widow, Kaliammal Sinnasamy, who had sought custody of the body, disputing an Islamic Sharia court's ruling last week that Moorthy, 36, was a Muslim convert and should be buried as a Muslim.
Soon after the ruling, Islamic Affairs officials took over the body, washed it according to Islamic rites and draped it in a white shroud for burial in a Muslim cemetery. A cleric recited prayers over his grave as more than 50 Muslims chanted verses from the Koran.
Kaliammal did not attend but a brother and nephew of Moorthy observed the rites.
The case threatens to blow into a rare interracial and religious dispute in this Muslim-majority nation, which prides itself on religious tolerance among a population that also includes Buddhists, Christians and Hindus.
Haris Mohamad Ibrahim, a lawyer representing Malaysia's Bar Council, blasted the verdict as a "human tragedy."
"So much for good interracial relations," he told reporters. "The judge has just told the widow and her family to go back and leave the body of their beloved to be buried by strangers."
Religious affairs of Muslims are governed by the Islamic Sharia Court and others -- who are guaranteed freedom of worship -- by other civilian courts. The jurisdictions of the two legal branches rarely overlap. Generally civilian judges are loath to question the Shariah court's authority.
In his ruling on the appeal by 30-year-old Kaliammal, High Court judge Raus Sharif said he has no jurisdiction to overrule the Sharia court decision.
A weeping Kaliammal did not speak to reporters after the verdict but her lawyer, A. Sivanesan, said she does not consider it a loss.
"She says ... anybody can take the body, but her husband's soul is still with us," Sivanesan said.
Moorthy took part in a nationally feted Malaysian expedition to Mount Everest in 1997. He was paralyzed during army training in 1998 and slipped into a coma last month, at which time his former colleagues told Kaliammal that he had embraced Islam in October last year.
The Islamic Affairs Department did not provide documentary proof of the alleged conversion, saying he did it verbally.
Kaliammal says Moorthy was not a Muslim as he continued to drink liquor, eat pork and participate in Hindu religious festivals -- all prohibited by Islam -- even after the purported conversion.
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