Prospects of Religious Freedom Appear Grim in Islamic Maldives


Two years after political reforms, freedom of faith nowhere in sight.

MALÉ, Maldives, August 10 (CDN) — Visitors to this Islamic island nation get a sense of religious restrictions even before they arrive. The arrival-departure cards given to arriving airline passengers carry a list of items prohibited under Maldivian laws – including “materials contrary to Islam.”

After Saudi Arabia, the Maldives is the only nation that claims a 100-percent Muslim population. The more than 300,000 people in the Maldives, an Indian Ocean archipelago featuring 1,192 islets 435 miles southwest of Sri Lanka, are all Sunnis.

This South Asian nation, however, has more than 70,000 expatriate workers representing several non-Islamic religions, including Christianity.

Also, around 60,000 tourists, mainly from Europe, visit each year to enjoy the blue ocean and white beaches and normally head straight to one of the holiday resorts built on around 45 islands exclusively meant for tourism. Tourists are rarely taken to the other 200 inhabited islands where locals live.

Nearly one-third of the population lives in the capital city of Malé, the only island where tourists and Maldivians meet.

While the Maldivians do not have a choice to convert out of Islam or to become openly atheist, foreigners in the country can practice their religion only privately.

In previous years several Christian expats have either been arrested for attending worship in private homes or denied visas for several months or years on suspicion of being connected with mission agencies.

According to “liberal estimates,” the number of Maldivian Christians or seekers “cannot be more than 15,” said one source.

“Even if you engage any Maldivian in a discussion on Christianity and the person reports it to authorities, you can be in trouble,” the source said. “A Maldivian youth studying in Sri Lanka became a Christian recently, but when his parents came to know about it, they took him away. We have not heard from him since then.”

The source added that such instances are not uncommon in the Maldives.

“I wish I could attend church, but I am too scared to look for one,” said a European expat worker. “I have not even brought my Bible here; I read it online. I don’t want to take any chances.”

The British reportedly translated the Bible into the local language, Dhivehi, and made it available in the 19th century, as the Maldives was a British protectorate from 1887 to 1965. Today no one knows how the Dhivehi Bible “disappeared.”

“A new translation has been underway for years, and it is in no way near completion,” said the source who requested anonymity.

 

Religion Excluded from Rights

The 2008 constitution, adopted five years after a popular movement for human rights began, states that a “non-Muslim may not become a citizen of the Maldives.”

Abdulla Yameen, brother of the former dictator of the Maldives and leader of the People’s Alliance party, an ally of the opposition Dhivehi Raiyyathunge Party (Maldivian People’s Party or DRP), told Compass that the issue of religious freedom was “insignificant” for the Maldives.

“There’s no demand for it from the public,” Yameen said. “If you take a public poll, 99 percent of the citizens will say ‘no’ to religious freedom.”

Maldivians are passionate about their religion, Yameen added, referring to a recent incident in which a 37-year-old Maldivian citizen, Mohamed Nazim, was attacked after he told a gathering that he was not a Muslim. On May 28, before a crowd of around 11,000 Maldivians, Nazim told a visiting Indian Muslim televangelist, Zakir Naik, that although he was born to a practicing Muslim family, he was “struggling to believe in religions.”

He also asked Naik about his “verdict on Islam.” The question enraged an angry crowd, with many calling for Nazim’s death while others beat him. He received several minor injuries before police took him away.

“See how the public went after his [Nazim’s] throat,” said Yameen, who studied at Claremont Graduate University in California. When asked if such passion was good for a society, he replied, “Yes. We are an Islamic nation, and our religion is an important part of our collective identity.”

Asked if individuals had no rights, his terse answer was “No.” Told it was shocking to hear his views, he said, “We are also shocked when a nation legalizes gay sex.”

Mohamed Zahid, vice president of the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives, told Compass that the country has its own definition of human rights.

“It is to protect people’s rights under the sharia [Islamic law] and other international conventions with the exception of religious freedom,” he said. “We are a sovereign nation, and we follow our own constitution.”

Zahid and several other local sources told Compass that the issue of religious rights was “irrelevant” for Maldivians. “Not more than 100 people in the country want religious freedom,” Zahid said.

 

Politics of Religion

Former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, a virtual dictator for 30 years until 2008, is generally held responsible for creating an atmosphere of religious restrictions in the Maldives, as he sought to homogenize religion in the country by introducing the state version of Sunni Islam. He also led a major crackdown on Christians.

The Protection of Religious Unity Act, enacted in 1994, was an endeavor to tighten the government’s control over mosques and all other Islamic institutions. The Gayoom administration even wrote Friday sermons to be delivered in mosques.

In 1998, Gayoom began a crackdown on alleged missionary activities.

“A radio station based out of India used to air Christian programs via the Seychelles, but the government came to know about it and ensured that they were discontinued with the help of the government in the Seychelles,” said a local Muslim source.

That year, Gayoom reportedly arrested around 50 Maldivians who were suspected to have converted to Christianity and deported 19 foreign workers accused of doing missionary work. A source said Gayoom apparently wanted to regain popularity at a time when his leadership was being questioned.

When the archipelago became a multi-party democracy in October 2008, new President Mohamed Nasheed, a former journalist and activist, was expected to pursue a liberal policy as part of the country’s reforms agenda.

Although Nasheed is the president, his party, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), has only 28 members and the support of four independents in the 77-member People’s Majlis (Maldives’ unicameral Parliament). Gayoom, now in his 70s and the leader of the largest opposition party, the DRP, has a simple majority – which presents difficulties in governance. Nasheed pleads helplessness in implementing reforms, citing an intransigent opposition.

Today Gayoom’s party accuses President Nasheed of not being able to protect the country’s distinct identity and culture, which the opposition says are rooted in Islam. The Gayoom-led parliament recently sought to impeach the education minister for proposing to make Islam and Dhivehi lessons optional – rather than mandatory – in high school.

To pre-empt the impeachment move, the whole cabinet of Nasheed resigned on June 29, which caused a major political crisis that led to violent street protests. The Nasheed administration allegedly arrested some opposition members, including Gayoom’s brother, Yameen. Political tensions and uncertainties continued at press time.

Now that President Nasheed’s popularity is declining – due to perceptions that he has become as authoritarian as his predecessor – it is feared that, amid immense pressure by the opposition to follow conservative policies, he might begin to follow in Gayoom’s footsteps.

 

Growing Extremism

Both the ruling and opposition parties admit that Islamic extremism has grown in the country. In October 2007, a group of young Maldivians engaged government security forces in a fierce shootout on Himandhoo Island.

Nasheed’s party alleges that Gayoom’s policy of promoting the state version of Sunni Islam created an interest to discern “true Islam,” with extremists from Pakistan stepping in to introduce “jihadism” in the Maldives. The DRP, on the other hand, says that behind the growth of extremism is the current government’s liberal policy of allowing Muslims of different sects to visit the Maldives to preach and give lectures, including the conservative Sunni sect of “Wahhabis.”

Until the early 1990s, Maldivian women would hardly wear the black burqa (covering the entire body, except the eyes and hands), and no men would sport a long beard – outward marks of Wahhabi Muslims, said the Muslim source, adding that “today the practice has become common.”

Still, Islam as practiced in the Maldives is pragmatic and unlike that of Saudi Arabia, he said. “People here are liberal and open-minded.”

As extremism grows, though, it is feared that radical Islamists may go to any extent to extra-judicially punish anyone suspected of being a missionary or having converted away from Islam, and that they can pressure the government to remain indifferent to religious freedom.

How long will it take for the Maldives to allow religious freedom?

“Maybe after the Maldivian government legalizes gay sex,” the Muslim source joked.

Report from Compass Direct News

UGANDA: THREATS, EXPULSIONS FOR CHRISTIAN COUPLE


Hostilities evident in Muslim area where missionaries were slain.

NAIROBI, Kenya, June 26 (Compass Direct News) – When a young Muslim woman in northern Uganda heard about Jesus in February 2005 and began having dreams about the cross of Christ, it marked the beginning of a nightmare.

Between the dreams and otherwise sleepless nights, Aleti Samusa of Yumbe district soon converted to Christianity; her family immediately kicked her out of their home.

Economically devastated and deprived of that which is most valued in the communal culture, Samusa sought refuge in a local church in Lotongo village. There she found the man she would marry later that year, David Edema, who was raised a Christian but who began sharing in the sufferings of a convert from Islam by virtue of becoming one flesh with one.

His bride’s family did not attend the couple’s wedding, Edema told Compass, and it wasn’t long before her relatives threatened to break up their marriage. With Samusa’s family threatening to forcibly take her from Edema, the couple fled Lotongo village to Yumbe town. Their troubles had just begun.

“The Muslims started sending people, saying that I am not wanted in Yumbe town and that I should leave the town,” Edema said.

Most houses in Yumbe are owned by Muslims, he said, and since 2006 the couple has been forced to move from one rented house to another without notice.

“The owner just wakes up one morning and gives us marching orders to vacate the house,” the 29-year-old Edema said. “Nowadays, the situation is getting worse. Muslims are openly saying even in their mosques that they plan to take unknown action against my family.”

One potential danger amounts to a death threat against his wife, now 24.

“The Muslims are saying that they are going to send some Jinns [evil spirits] to my wife because she forsook Islam, and that this spirit will kill her,” he said.

Asked what steps he has taken in the face of these threats, Edema was resigned.

“It will be pointless to take this matter to court, because the people who are to hear the case are Muslims,” he said. “I feel no justice will be done.”

Area Violence

Edema said he and his wife are hoping that God will open a door for them to move to another town.

“The sooner the better for us,” he said, “for we do not know what the Muslims are planning to do with us.”

Violence in Yumbe district is not without precedent. On March 18, 2004, seven suspected radical Islamists dressed in military fatigues murdered two African Inland Mission missionaries and a Ugandan student in an attack on a college run by local aid group Here is Life. Warren and Donna Pett, both 49 and agriculture experts from the U.S. state of Wisconsin, were teachers at the Evangelical School of Technology. The slain student was Isaac Juruga.

The murder case was dismissed in February by the state attorney, who claimed lack of evidence. A Here is Life official who requested anonymity, however, said not enough weight was given to evidence that included a mobile phone recovered from one of the suspected assailants.

“We feel that justice was not done in the ruling of the killing of the two missionaries,” he said.

In Yumbe, the administrative arm of the government as well as the judiciary is run by Muslims, said Edema, who added that the district is still not a safe place for Christians.

“Sometimes they even confront me that I should stop converting Muslims to Christianity – this is not true,” Edema said. “It is just a way of wanting to pick a quarrel with me.”

Edema, his wife and two children belong to Pilgrim Church. Christians and converts to Christianity are a tiny minority in the area, but about three kilometers from Yumbe town is the Church of Uganda in Eleke, with a congregation of about 100. This church has recently sounded alarms about Muslims making land-grabs of its property.

A church leader who requested anonymity said area Muslims have seized a substantial portion of the church’s land, but when the matter went to court, the case was dismissed due to lack of a title deed.

In addition, in May Muslim youths beat a female church worker who had taken a photo of a mosque that was under construction 100 meters from the church, he said.

“Rowdy Muslim youths removed the film after destroying the lid of the camera,” he said. “The militant youths started beating up the church worker as they dragged her to the police station in Yumbe, where she was interrogated for three hours before being released.”

Peter Manasseh, vicar of the Eleke Church of Uganda, said the church has filed a complaint with the local governing council, “but we do not expect any fairness to be done because the person handling this case is a Muslim and will be partisan.”

A journalist who works for a Christian radio station, however, decided to look into the case – and was himself beaten. Ronald Oguzu of Voice of Life radio in Arua town went to Yumbe yesterday to investigate, said a senior station official who requested anonymity.

“At the mosque site, the Muslims caught hold of Oguzu, beat him and he had his tooth broken,” the official said. “He was then hospitalized in Yumbe hospital and is still receiving some medication.”

He said a criminal case has been filed, but that chances for justice were not good.

“We know that this case will be thrown out of the window, just like that of the killing of the two missionaries,” he said. “To date no arrests have been made.”

Report from Compass Direct News

JESUS BOAT FOUND IN THE SEA OF GALILEE IN ISRAEL


In 1986, two brothers, Moshe and Yuval Lufan, found something beyond all expectations, reports Brian Nixon, special to ASSIST News Service.

According to Pastor Skip Heitzig, who has recently finished filming a documentary on the find, the brothers felt that they would discover something wonderful on that day.

And wonderful it was.

Tucked away in the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, the brothers unearthed a 1st century boat, now named the “Jesus Boat.”

Heitzig explained to me in a recent interview that in 1986 there was a tremendous drought in Israel. This allowed the brothers access to deeper regions of the lake.

One of the brothers stumbled upon some wood, and after a little digging, determined that the wood was actually a boat. According to the brothers, a double rainbow revealed itself in the sky after the find.

The brothers retreated to the Kibbutz Ginasar to get help. The Antiquity Authorities were brought in. After a long, 12-day archeological excavation (the boat was kept in a preserving environment and sailed across the Galilee river), the “Jesus Boat” was put in a 7-year chemical bath (a wax paraffin, Heitzig explained) before it could be displayed in the open air.

Since the time of its unearthing, the boat has been officially dated to the 1st century. Almost 27 feet long, and over 7 feet wide, the boat was dated based upon the nails used and the construction of the hull.

Most scholars agree that the era during which the boat was built falls somewhere between 100 B.C and 100 A.D.

Archeologists state that the “Jesus Boat” is the first near-complete boat ever to be found in the Sea of Galilee, and is therefore a considerable discovery.

Though some have attempted to draw conclusions that Jesus (or His disciples) may have used the boat, the reality is that know one knows. Chances are the boat served its purpose for fishing and trade, and then when it got old; it was allowed to submerge in the lake.

Though scientists can’t determine if this exact boat was one Jesus would have sailed on, it can be said that it is representative of the boats the people of His day would have used.

Since the boat’s discovery, the Pope came to view the vessel- hoping it needed a home in the Vatican. The President came to see it, as did many other men of science and politics. For the past few years, the “Jesus Boat” has generated great interest across the world.

In as much as Heitzig finds the boat a fascinating and important archeological discovery, he also sees the boat as a picture of more than an ancient sailing craft. In the boat, Heitzig finds a parallel to the nation the boat was discovered in.

For Heitzig, the boat is a picture of Israel: a nation that was considered dead and submerged. But through His wonderful providence, God brought Israel forth in 1948. He reemerged it as a bud for a new generation, and established Israel as a nation.

In the soon to be released documentary, The Jesus Boat, Heitzig, as host, takes viewers on a journey through the discovery, preservation, and display of the boat (the boat can be seen in the Yigal Alon Museum in Kibbutz Ginasar), though Heitzig makes it a point to draw a strong parallel to the rebirth of the Nation of Israel.

According to Heitzig, “The Jesus Boat was way more than a documentary about an ancient boat. It’s really a testimony to the faithfulness of God. Through the film, we paralleled the story of a lost boat and a lost nation- Israel- both of which were “resurrected” after 2,000 years. It tells of a boat that wouldn’t stay buried in a land that couldn’t stay buried!”

“Just like the boat was buried under the shores for 2,000 years, the land of Israel was submerged – virtually not a nation – a dispersed people group. Yet against all odds, Israel re-emerged in 1948. As the prophet Ezekiel predicted, there was a re-gathering of Jews from the four corners of the world into that ancient piece of real estate. It would seem as impossible as dried bones, bleached and parched under the Middle Eastern sun, coming to life again.” (See Ezekiel 36-37).

“And yet it happened – 1948, the re-establishment of the nation. And why? Because God made promises to Abraham: ‘I’ll bless you, I’ll make you a great nation, your name will be great, I’ll bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you.’”(See Genesis 12:1-3).

Report from the Christian Telegraph

TURKEY: CHRISTIANS’ TRIAL FOR ‘INSULTING TURKISHNESS’ STALLS AGAIN


Case against two converts drags on; media already passed sentenced on Christianity.

ISTANBUL, November 12 (Compass Direct News) – Two years into a trial for “insulting Turkishness” that has been light on evidence and heavy on mud-slinging at Turkey’s Protestant community, a court proceeding last week brought no progress.

Another witness for the prosecution failed to appear in the trial of Turkish Christians Turan Topal and Hakan Tastan, charged with “insulting Turkishness” and spreading Christianity through illegal methods. Moreover, a Justice Ministry answer to the court about the viability of charges under Turkey’s controversial Article 301 had yet to arrive at the court last week.

In the last hearing in June, Silivri Criminal Court Judge Mehmet Ali Ozcan ordered a review of the two Christian converts’ alleged violations of the controversial article of the Turkish penal code on “insulting Turkishness.” But the court is still waiting for the Justice Ministry to decide whether they can be tried under Article 301 of the penal code.

The judge set the next hearing for Feb. 24, 2009 while the court awaits a response on whether the Christians can be charged under the controversial article.

Topal and Tastan are still charged with reviling Islam (Article 216) and compiling information files on private citizens (Article 135).

In what critics called “cosmetic” revisions of Article 301, the Turkish government amended it in May to require Justice Ministry permission to file such cases. Put into effect on May 8, the changes also redefined the vague offense of “insulting Turkishness” to read “insulting the Turkish nation.”

While the court awaited a decision on Article 301, in the hearing on Nov. 4 it did free the defendants from forced attendance at future hearings. This, according to defense lawyer Haydar Polat, was the only progress made by the court; he added that a witness or evidence would have been better. For lack of these, he said, the prosecution has needlessly dragged out the case.

“In both cases [against them], the only acceptable progress is the testimony of a witness,” said Polat. “Then again, the fact that the defendants are free from having to attend every trial is in a sense progress too.”

 

Lame Witnesses

The initial charges prepared by the Silivri state prosecutor against Tastan and Topal were based on “a warning telephone call to the gendarme,” claiming that some Christian missionaries were trying to form illegal groups in local schools and making insults against Turkishness, the military and Islam.

Despite a court summons sent to the Silivri and Istanbul gendarme headquarters requesting six named gendarme soldiers to testify as prosecution witnesses in the case, none have stepped forward to testify.

“They will be called in the next hearing as well,” Polat told Compass.

At the June 24 hearing, two teenage witnesses for the prosecution declared they did not know the defendants and had never seen them before facing them in the courtroom. Several witnesses have failed to show up on various trial dates, and last week another witness called by prosecution, Fatih Kose, did not appear.

“There is no lack of witnesses, but as far as we are concerned, these characters’ accounts are irrelevant to the truth and full of contradictions,” said Polat. “I mean there is no believable and persuasive argument, nor a coherent witness.”

Last week a police officer from the precinct where Topal and Tastan were allegedly seen doing missionary activities was summoned to court to testify. He told the court that he indeed worked in the precinct but knew nothing about the activities of the two Christians.

Eleven months ago, the appointed prosecutor himself had demanded that the court acquit the two Christians, declaring there was “not a single concrete, credible piece of evidence” to support the accusations against them. This prosecutor was removed from the case, and two months later the judge hearing the case withdrew over prosecution complaints that he was not impartial.

Two key figures pressing the Article 301 charges and promoting sensational media coverage of the Silivri trial proceedings are now jailed themselves, unable to attend the hearings.

Both ultranationalist lawyer Kemal Kerincsiz and spokesperson Sevgi Erenerol of the Turkish Orthodox Church – a Turkish nationalist denomination with no significant following – are accused of playing leading roles in Ergenekon, an ultranationalist cabal of retired generals, politicians, journalists and mafia members under investigation for conspiracy.

Since mid-January, 47 people have been jailed and face trial for involvement in the alleged crime network, said to have orchestrated numerous killings and violence as part of a nationalist plot to overthrow the Turkish government by 2009.

Asked about the chances of closing the case that has made no progress for two years due to lack of evidence against the defendants, Polat said he was hopeful his clients would find justice in the Turkish legal labyrinth.

“As lawyers, we believe that both of our clients will be acquitted,” he said. “Come February we expect that the Justice Ministry will not approve the opening of a public case on the basis of ‘insulting Turkishness.’”

 

Slandering Christians

The trial of Topal and Tastan has included its share of mud-slinging at Turkish Protestants, estimated at 3,000 to 3,500 people in a country of 70 million, deepening the nation’s prejudices against them.

This legal battle has been less about guilt or innocence and more about tainting the community’s image, according to a member of the legal committee of the Alliance of Protestant Churches in Turkey.

The Christian Turk from the legal committee told Compass that in 2006, when the charges against Topal and Tastan first came to light, there were news reports for days claiming that Christians tricked children in elementary schools, paid people to come to church and gave women away for sex, among other absurd assertions.

“The goal was to create disinformation, and they succeeded at portraying Christians in a negative light,” he said.

The source said that this was the primary goal of ultranationalist lawyer Kerincsiz’s team, which he believes is behind the cases brought against Topal and Tastan as well as the delay in the outcome.

“On the first day of the hearings, when the case opened, I told those around me that nothing would come of this case,” he said.

The legal committee member said media created a psychological war against Turkish Christians. Other members of the Protestant community believe another goal was to deter any evangelism or outreach by Turkish Christians.

“It was to discourage the whole Christian community and quash them and discourage evangelism,” said another source.

The member of the legal committee said he believes that eventually Topal and Tastan will be acquitted. But even if they win the court case, the damage from the publicity war on the church will not be as easy to repair.

“I think everything will stay the same, because the case won’t be reported in the news,” he said. “The issue was not about whether these two were guilty or not. When this first broke out it was in the news for days. When it is over it will barely make it to a newspaper corner, and we won’t be able to give a message for the public because we don’t wield media power. We comfortably carry our quiet voice, and we will until then.”  

Report from Compass Direct News