The Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Sikhism said on Thursday that the Islamic Shariah court's insistence that M. Moorthy converted to Islam before his death could be a setback for racial and religious harmony in this mostly Muslim nation.

"If what happened to Moorthy's family happens to other Hindus, or to Christian and Buddhist families, then national unity will suffer because the non-Muslims will feel they have no protection," said R. Thiagaraja, the council's secretary-general.

"If what happened to Moorthy's family happens to other Hindus, or to Christian and Buddhist families, then national unity will suffer because the non-Muslims will feel they have no protection"

R. Thiagaraja, 
Secretary-general of Malaysia's minority body

Moorthy, an ex-army commando who died on 20 December, was accorded a Muslim funeral on Wednesday, after his widow, Kaliammal Sinnasamy, lost her appeal in the High Court against a Shariah judge's ruling last week that Moorthy was a Muslim convert who should be buried with Islamic rites.

The Islamic Shariah court is separate from civilian courts and hears cases involving Muslims. But Moorthy's case underscores how civilian judges are unable to override the Shariah court's authority when their jurisdictions occasionally overlap.

Rare incident

High Court Judge Raus Sharif said on Wednesday that he was powerless to review the Shariah decision, which came after the Islamic Affairs Department claimed that Moorthy, 36, verbally converted in October 2004 and was registered as a Muslim following an application by the armed forces.

Thiagaraja said leaders in the inter-religious coalition hope to meet with Maximus Ongkili, the government minister responsible for national unity, to call for changes in the law.

"It's wrong for the Shariah court to assume jurisdiction in cases that affect non-Muslims," Thiagaraja said, expressing hopes for constitutional amendments so that civilian courts can determine whether conversions to Islam are legally valid.

Ongkili was travelling and couldn't immediately be contacted, said his aide, Norrizan Majid. Friction between Muslims, who comprise more than 60% of Malaysia's 26 million people, and minority faiths is rare in Malaysia, one of the Islamic world's most progressive nations.

Moorthy's case drew attention particularly because he was part of a much publicized Malaysian expedition to Mount Everest in 1997. He was paralyzed during army training in 1998. After he fell into a coma last month, his colleagues told Kaliammal that he had embraced Islam.

Kaliammal says he never told relatives about his purported conversion and that he remained a Hindu because he ate pork, drank liquor and took part in Hindu festivals - all banned by Islam.