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

Johnny Hunt expresses urgency about Great Commission


Encouraged by attendance exceeding 8,600 registered messengers on the first day of the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting June 23 — twice as many as he expected — SBC President Johnny Hunt said there is a “sense of urgency” among the brethren, reports Baptist Press.

Hunt attributed much of the interest at this year’s meeting to his Great Commission Resurgence initiative. In a news conference following his re-election to a second term, he also addressed questions ranging from his opinion of controversial Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll to his view of Calvinism among Southern Baptists.

“I feel there’s a lot of energy in the halls,” said Hunt, pastor of Atlanta-area First Baptist Church in Woodstock. “Everybody’s talking the same talk: ‘We need this Great Commission Resurgence.’

“We are saying times have been desperate,” Hunt added. “Now I really do sense fellow Southern Baptists are saying we need to get serious.”

Asked about Driscoll, Hunt responded: “I don’t know him, never met him. A lot of young men like to follow his blogs and podcasts. It’s just been interesting.”

Referring to motions from the floor placing Driscoll and the network he founded, Acts 29, in a bad light, Hunt said, “[T]he entire premise of being a Baptist is sort of thrown under the bus when you start telling someone who they can or cannot fellowship with.” He said it is a matter that it should be left to the conscience and the priesthood of the believer.

About church methodology, Hunt said the SBC is a “great family fellowship” using varied methodologies which provide a healthy balance.

Hunt said it might be that some of the perceived tension across generations of Southern Baptists is rooted in several things, including methodology, dress and music.

Encouraged by what he said is the turnout of younger Southern Baptists, Hunt said, “[I]f we can move beyond our perceptions” and begin to “listen to heart of some of these young leaders,” Southern Baptists might be encouraged “to catch their passion.”

Hunt relayed his experience at a recent International Mission Board appointment service in Denver where 101 mostly young missionaries were sent out, with the “majority going to extremely hard and dangerous places.”

“With that type of commitment to Jesus Christ that they’re willing, many of them, to write their will before they leave with the understanding some of them will probably never return, I have a very difficult time spending my time talking about their jeans, whether hair is spiked or colored” or their musical tastes, Hunt said.

By building relationships with younger leaders, “if we see some areas of concern, at least we have earned the right to speak into them.”

On the continuing banter between Calvinists and those critical of the doctrine that attempts to describe God’s work in salvation, Hunt said the debate has raged for more than 400 years and is part of Baptist history.

“We have wonderful men and women on both sides. I think the Baptist tent is large enough for both,” he said.

Asked by a reporter if an invitation was made for President Barack Obama to address the SBC, Hunt said he knew of no such invitation.

But Hunt, the first known Native American SBC president, said, “I feel like we will have a resolution to really honor our president, especially in the context of being the first African American to be elected. We have much to celebrate in that.”

Hunt said he had ample opportunity to invite Republicans to speak, “but we felt that would send a wrong signal because we wanted to send prayer support to the new president and we are mandated to pray for our president.”

Speaking to proposed federal hate crimes legislation that some say could infringe on biblical preaching, Hunt said he was not overly worried as long as pastors “stay in the context of preaching biblical truth. And if the day comes that we would be imprisoned for the proclamation of the Gospel becoming that much of an offense, we would join about two-thirds of the rest of the planet.

“God forbid that I would travel to the Middle East to encourage those already in hostile settings while at same time being afraid to proclaim the message that I encourage,” Hunt said.

Returning to the Great Commission Resurgence, Hunt answered a question regarding media access to the meetings of the proposed GCR task force. He said media presence would be “counterproductive because we want people to be at liberty to share their heart.”

It could be “embarrassing where we’re just seeking wisdom,” Hunt added, “but we would love to have any and all of you at the meetings and as soon as it is over we’d be delighted to share what we came to by way of context.”

Hunt said he has “no desire whatsoever to touch the structure of the SBC and the truth is, I couldn’t if I wanted to. It would violate policy.” Hunt said perhaps more clarity in his early statements about the GCR document could have helped ease fears of drastic change.

Even if the GCR task force were rejected, traction already has been gained by efficiency studies at the Georgia and Florida conventions and at the Southern Baptist mission boards, Hunt said.

In responding to the first question asked at the news conference, Hunt predicted if the GCR were to pass that evening, he likely would name the members of the task force June 24 and it would include several seminary professors, a college president, an associational director of missions, pastors of churches of varied sizes spanning the country and ethnically diverse members.

“I don’t have all the names so I’d probably miss some,” Hunt said. “But I’d be quick to say it will be a very fair committee.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph