KUALA LUMPUR: The Bar Council held its controversial “Conversion to Islam” forum today despite opposition from various parties but ended it earlier than scheduled.
Midway through the forum, Bar Council President Datuk S Ambiga took to the stage and told those present that the police had advised them to wrap up the forum by 10am.
The forum at the Bar Council office in Lebuh Pasar Besar started at 9am and was supposed to end at 1.30pm.
At 10am, Ambiga formally announced that the forum was closed.
“We respect everybody’s views. We have no quarrel with anyone and I call the forum closed,” she said.
Meanwhile, the 100-odd people, including those from Islamic non-governmental organisations who had gathered outside the venue to voice their protest had swollen to 1,000 by 9.30am.
Some 100 policemen were deployed to handle security in the area.
At about 9.50am, several representative of NGOs and political parties entered the auditorium on the first floor of the Bar Council building and stood facing the speakers — comprising lawyers Ravi Nekko, K. Shanmugam and Mohamed Haniff Khatri Abdulla — who were in the midst of discussion.
Minutes later arguments ensued between them, with the group demanding that the forum be stopped.
Former Suhakam commissioner Mehrun Siraj who was at the forum, stood up and called on the group to calm down and show respect for the event.
At this juncture, Ambiga went on stage and assured everyone that she would close the forum if everyone calm down and remain seated. Minutes later, she announced the closure of the forum.
Home Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar told reporters in Kota Tinggi, Johor that the forum was ended early to avoid tension and prevent the situation from getting out of control.
“We didn’t want the anger to lead to any untoward incident. So far, I’ve not received any report on threat to security or disturbance to public order,” he said.
He added that police advised the organiser to end the forum early after the crowd demonstrating outside the Bar Council office continued to swell.
Commenting on the matter, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said the government did not want to see polemics over the issue.
“The government is open about this but don’t abuse the openness,” he said, stressing that it was not proper for such forum to be held openly.
The crowd began gathering outside the Bar Council building since 8am.
At 9.30am, Peninsula Malay Students Federation (GPMS) Deputy President Jais Abdul Karim was seen discussing with Dang Wangi OCPD Zulkarnain Abdul Rahman that they would proceed with the gathering peacefully.
Several representative of NGOs and political parties later followed Zulkarnain inside the forum’s venue.
Zulkarnain told reporters later that after a brief discussion, two of the event’s organising committee members agreed to end the forum immediately.
“Police have the power to advise or to stop the forum if we feel that the threat to security is rising. We don’t want the situation to get out of hand; so we advise the organiser to stop the forum immediately,” he said.
Among those seen at the gathering were Pas Youth chief Salahuddin Ayub and two Parti Keadilan Rakyat supreme council members, Badrul Amin Baharum and Latheefa Koya.
On the discovery of two bottles, believed to be molotov cocktails, at the Bar Council entrance at 7.30am, Zulkarnain said they had been sent to the Chemistry Department for analysis.
Met by reporters later, Ambiga said, the incident as unfortunate and that it was unnecessary to take an aggressive stand to stop the forum.
“As far as the Bar is concerned, we believe in the freedom of speech and those who gathered outside the building are entitle to do so as long as it is done peacefully,” she said.
Ambiga said the forum was to deal with legal issues and not to question any religion.
“We’re looking at the conclusion of conversion cases dealt by the court where there was a conflict between the jurisdiction of the Civil Court and Syariah Court which affected families involved in conversion cases.
“At the end of the day, the dialogue is very important and the forum was to assist the public facing conversion problems,” she said.
Thanking the police for handling the situation professionally, Ambiga said, the bar council would not lodge police reports against the protestors as they too were exercising their right.
Meanwhile, Mehrun told reporters that the topic should be discussed in a nice way and the public should be allowed to express their views.
She also said that the NGO representatives’ action to interrupt and stop the discussion was uncalled for.
“What I feel need to be done is to explain to the people what Islam is all about. I think we can come to discuss instead of shouting. That is not the way.
I am unhappy with it because it gives Islam a bad name,” she said.
Mehrun urged the government to amend Section 3 of the Law Reforms (Marriage and Divorce) Act 1976 to give opportunites to a converted spouse to annul his or her civil marriage at the Civil Court in cases where the other spouse opted not to convert.
Currently, she said, there were cases being brought up to the Civil Court between the converted spouse and his or her non-Muslim partner disputing which jurisdiction — the Syariah Court or the Civil Court — should adjudicate the dissolution of civil marriage and custody of children from their civil marriage.
“To me, the problem arises due to the lack of understanding among the non-Muslims and it is our duty to explain to them, but not by shouting or bullying,” she said.
She added that more such discussions should be held to give opportunities to Muslims to explain matters related to Islam to the non-Muslims.