New report examines right to freedom of religion or belief in Malaysia

A new ICJ report examines the right to freedom of religion or belief in Malaysia, analyzing the country’s legal framework to identify protections of and limitations on the exercise of this right in law and in practice.

The report highlights that jurisdictional disputes affecting the adjudication of matters relating to religion and belief – between civil courts which apply federal and state laws, and Syariah courts, which apply Islamic laws – have emerged as the main arena of contestation.

These disputes have arisen amidst a national legal framework where there remains a lack of clarity in existing jurisprudence and law about the dual jurisdictional regime and insufficient legal safeguards exist to protect the rights of individuals with respect to personal and family matters concerning religion and belief.

Protective mechanisms for persons who wish to change or adopt a new religion also remain inadequate in law, while laws have been misused in practice to curtail the right to religion and belief of religious minorities.

The report explains the general international legal framework governing the right to freedom of religion or belief, before highlighting several concerns relating to the protection and promotion of this right in Malaysia. These include:

  • Discrimination against religious minorities;
  • Limitations on the rights of children relating to personal matters governed by Islamic Law;
  • Discrimination against persons who wish to change or adopt a new religion;
  • Criminalization and prosecution of proselytism among Muslims;
  • Prohibitions on the use of the word ‘Allah’ by non-Muslims;
  • Criminalization of free expression through the crime of sedition.

These concerns are detailed in the report. In light of these challenges, the report offers a number of recommendations to the Government of Malaysia to assist authorities in ensuring Malaysia’s legal framework is implemented in accordance with international human rights law and fully protects the right to freedom of religion or belief.

The report situates its legal analysis within Malaysia’s socio-political context, where religion and ethnicity play significant roles in politics and society, and concerns are emerging of rising intolerance against religious and ethnic minorities.

This report is part of a series of ICJ publications on the right to freedom of religion or belief, produced with the support of the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion and Belief (IPPFoRB).


Frederick Rawski, ICJ Asia-Pacific Regional Director,

See also

New primer on freedom of religion or belief in international human rights law

New briefing paper: challenges to freedom of religion or belief in Nepal


Malaysia-Freedom of religion Exec sum-Advocacy-Analysis brief-2019-ENG (executive summary, in PDF)

Malaysia-Freedom of religion brief-Advocacy-Analysis brief-2019-ENG (full report, in PDF)

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