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

Geneva celebrates John Calvin’s 500th birthday


About 500 worshipers yesterday attended the opening convocations for Calvin 500, the international Quincentenary celebration of the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth (July 10, 1509), at St. Pierre Cathedral in the old town of Geneva, reports Michael Ireland, chief correspondent, ASSIST News Service.

Beginning with a welcome by Mr. Guillaume Taylor from the St. Pierre Parish Council, the opening convocations, featured morning worship from Calvin’s time and a sermon on Philippians 3:8-12 by Dr. Sinclair Ferguson of the First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina.

The evening services featured Ugandan Archbishop Henry Luke Orombi, much psalm singing, and a sermon by Dr. Bryan Chapell, President of Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri.

“Calvin is one of the most important thinkers in history,” said Calvin500 Executive Director Rev. David Hall, who also is pastor of Midway Presbyterian Church in America located in Powder Springs, GA, according to a media release.

“His ministry and writings left an indelible impression on the modern world, and especially Western culture. It would be hard to find a figure from history more worthy of remembering, if lasting impact for good is the standard,” said Hall.

“St. Pierre’s Cathedral in Geneva as unusually full for a morning worship service on July 5th, but admittedly a congregation that includes at least one archbishop, six seminary professors, twenty-four seminary professors, approximately 100 Reformed pastors from around the world and the author of over 300 books on Calvinist themes do not make up an ordinary congregation,’” said one attendee on a blog at the celebration website.

The writer stated: “As Dr. Ferguson noted, ‘Calvin would be surprised to see us here, and I am not sure he would have approved,’ however hopefully he would approved of the text.”

Another writer commented: “The evening was brought to a close with a truly wonderful exposition of Ephesians 1:3-6 by Bryan Chapell, a sermon which he called ‘In praise of predestination.’ With some memorable illustrations from Calvin and elsewhere, he carefully took us through the text urging us to see Paul’s commitment in showing us more of God’s Fatherhood than his sovereignty. God, he told us, is shouting: ‘I’ve been in love with you longer than the stars have been in sky or the fish have been in the sea.’”

Throughout the coming week, scholars and ministers will present lectures and sermons in these historic environs to celebrate the contributions of the Genevan reformer. The public is invited.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

UNIVERSITY WHERE LECTURES ON CHRISTIANITY WERE HELD BOMBED


The BBC has reported that Israeli air force jets have bombed the Islamic University in the Gaza Strip, a significant cultural symbol for Hamas, reports Dan Wooding, founder of ASSIST Ministries.

Warplanes also struck Hamas government offices as air raids aimed at forcing Palestinian militants to halt rocket fire into southern Israel continued.

Palestinian medics say nearly 300 people have been killed in the air raids that began on Saturday.

Israel has threatened to launch a ground assault and is now calling up 6,500 army reservists.

Witnesses in Gaza said they saw six separate air strikes on the Islamic University, hitting a laboratory building, just after midnight.

The university is a centre of support for Hamas – the Islamist militant group which controls the Gaza Strip. Many of its top officials graduated from there.

A BBC journalist in Gaza said the university authorities had evacuated the campus a few days ago as they had been expecting a strike.

Some years ago, I accompanied Brother Andrew, the Dutch-born best-selling author of God’s Smuggler, into Gaza City and it was then that he revealed that he lectured on “Biblical Christianity” at the Islamic University there.

“I was invited to teach on ‘Biblical Christianity’ to the students there,” he said. “When all they were assembled, they were told that I would speak to them about the Bible and some of them tried to leave the lecture hall, but the Hamas leaders blocked their way and they had to sit through my lecture.

“I was also allowed to bring Arabic New Testaments and hand them out to the students.”

Brother Andrew once told the Hamas leaders, “I can’t change the situation you face here in Gaza. I can’t solve the problems you have with your enemies. But I can offer you the One who is called the Prince of Peace. You cannot have real peace without Jesus. And you cannot experience Him without forgiveness. He offers to forgive us of all our sins. But we cannot receive that forgiveness if we don’t ask for it. The Bible calls this repentance and confession of sin. If you want it, then Jesus forgives. He forgave me and made me a new person. Now I’m not afraid to die because my sins are forgiven and I have everlasting life.”

Brother Andrew, who is also the founder of Open Doors, the international organization supporting persecuted Christians, is convinced that the number of Muslims involved in suicide bombings will increase in the coming years. Andrew has visited Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian areas regularly since the early 1980′s, encouraging the Christians and speaking with radical Muslims about the Gospel. He describes the militant Muslims as deeply depressed.

“They are facing insurmountable problems: they will never be able to defeat Israel and the United States militarily, and their faith makes it very difficult for them to enter Paradise,” he says. “Muslims know that they can only be saved by good works, but they also know that they do more evil deeds than good. Many Muslims are convinced that they will end in Hell when they die.” They also have to admit that Allah does not answer their prayers. The Koran also shows them no way to be saved. Together, that leads many radical Muslims to choose death in Jihad, the holy war, because that is the only direct way to Paradise. “They see no reason to live, so choose the only reason to die,” he said, addressing the 900 attendees of the Open Doors Day in Niedernhausen, Germany, on November 26th, 2005, the 50th anniversary of Open Doors Germany.

 

Hamas, Hezbollah, PLO: immense interest in the Gospel

“Unless we Christians go to the Muslims and tell them that they do not have to die because Jesus died for their sins too, the dramatic situation in the Near East, Iraq and Afghanistan will not change,” he said, reminding Christians of their responsibility. In many encounters with leaders of Hamas, Hezbollah and the PLO, he regularly senses a great interest in the message of Christianity. “I have given thousands of Bibles to radical Muslims, and no-one has ever refused. I have also often spoken with them about Jesus who died for the sins of the world, and nobody has killed me for it.”

 

Be an example, don’t discuss

Andrew called on Christians to show more courage and mercy towards Muslims, who are desperately seeking meaning in life. Many Christians have resigned in the face of the Muslim challenge. “Muslims do not believe, as we do, that Jesus is the son of God, and that he poured out his blood on the cross for the sins of the world. But that is exactly the answer we must give them in their situation.” Christians should seek contact with Muslims, and tell them the Good News in love. “We will never win the encounter with Islam through discussions or sermons. We have to go and show them how Jesus can change people.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph