The case is one of the most dramatic in a string of disputes in which people who embraced Islam also changed their young children's religion despite protests from their non-Muslim spouses.
Malaysia's Cabinet announced last week that minors should no longer be converted without both parents' consent. The decision represents a bid to resolve disputes that have strained race relations in this Muslim-majority nation, but it cannot be legally enforced until amendments are made to the existing law.
In the first related court hearing since the Cabinet's decision, lawyers for Jeyaganesh Mogarajah and his estranged wife, Shamala Sathiyaseelan, submitted arguments in an appeals court on Tuesday in a nearly seven-year-old dispute over Jeyaganesh's conversion of their two sons to Islam.
Jeyaganesh married Shamala in 1998 according to Hindu rites. He embraced Islam in November 2002 and converted their two sons, then aged 2 and 4, without his wife's knowledge or consent. Shamala, 37, left for Australia with her sons in 2004 for fear that Islamic authorities might take them away from her because she wanted them raised Hindu. Her lawyers say she has since gone to another country and would only return if she wins a court battle to declare the conversion invalid.
On Thursday, Jeyaganesh, a 40-year-old anesthetist, said he was willing to compromise with his wife and let the children learn both Muslim and Hindu teachings if they return. 'I've not seen my kids for five years,' Jeyaganesh told reporters at the court. 'There's been zero contact. It's a total blank. I'd like to see how they are.'
The case has become a symbol of mounting complaints of religious discrimination by non-Muslims. In recent years, several non-Muslim parents have failed to prevent estranged spouses from converting their children to Islam. Most of these cases end up in Islamic courts, which typically rule in favor of Muslims.
Shamala's lawyer, Ravi Nekoo, said his client won't return for fear that she would lose her sons.
'Her world has been torn apart. She's struggling to make ends meet in a foreign territory,' Mr Ravi said. 'She only wanted a quiet life, she never wanted all this publicity.'
A court gave Jeyaganesh and Shamala shared legal custody of the children in 2004, but ruled that Shamala would lose custody if there were 'reasonable grounds' to believe that she would influence the children's religious beliefs, such as by making them eat pork or teaching them Hindu tenets. -- AP