Kuala Lumpur - Malaysia's prime minister vowed on Monday to look into politically sensitive cases of Muslims seeking to renounce Islam in favour of other religions.
Mainly Muslim Malaysia, which has sizeable non-Muslim minorities, faces an acid test over the issue of religious freedom that could strain race and religious relations.
Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said Islamic religious authorities should be ready to handle apostasy cases.
"We have to be ready to listen and to solve the problems," he told reporters. "This is not about something that cannot be done. For those who don't want to be Muslims anymore, what can you do?"
His comments came days after a Malaysian woman accused Islamic religious police of intimidation and mental torture during a six-month detention for renouncing Islam in favour of the Hindu religion.
M. Revathi, a 29-year-old ethnic Indian, was detained for 180 days at a state-run Islamic counselling centre before she was released last week.
In practice, Malaysia's sharia courts do not allow Muslims to formally renounce Islam, preferring to send apostates to counselling and, ultimately, fining or jailing them if they refuse to desist.
Such people often end up in legal limbo, unable to register their new religious affiliations or legally marry non-Muslims. Many keep silent about their choice or emigrate.
In May, the country's best-known Christian convert, Lina Joy, lost a battle in the highest court to have the word "Islam" removed from her identity card. In delivering judgment in that case, the Federal Court's chief justice said the issue was related to Islamic law, and civil courts could not intervene.
Lina, born a Muslim, is an ethnic Malay. The majority Malays are Muslims by definition.