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

Despite Democracy, Christians in Bhutan Remain Underground

Open practice of faith could lead to more persecution, they fear.

THIMPHU, Bhutan, January 25 (CDN) — In this distant and isolated nation in the eastern Himalayas, known as the “Land of the Thunder Dragon,” almost everything looks uniformly Buddhist.

Most men and women in the landlocked country between India and China wear their national dress, and all the buildings – with their sloping walls, trefoil-shaped windows and pitched roofs – look alike, as if they were Buddhist monasteries.

There are no visible signs of Christians’ tiny presence, but they do exist. Christians, whose only official identity falls in the “others” category in the census, are estimated to range in number between 3,000 and 6,000. And they live out their Christian lives underground – no church buildings, Christian cemeteries or Christian bookstores are yet allowed.

Of Bhutan’s more than 670,000 people, 75 percent of them practice Buddhism, according to the 2005 census. Around 22 percent are Hindu, mostly of Nepali origin.

An absolute monarchy for over 100 years, Bhutan became a democratic, constitutional monarchy in March 2008, as per the wish of the former King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who served from 1972 to 2006. It has been nearly two years since democracy arrived in Druk Yul, as the country is known in its national language, Dzongkha. But little has changed for Christians.

If there is anything open about Christianity, it is the acknowledgement of Christians’ presence in the national press, which was born after the advent of democracy.

“A journalist telephoned and asked me if I was converting local people,” said a middle-aged pastor clad in Gho, the men’s national uniform, a knee-length gown woven with colorful wool. “I wondered how she got my phone number. Maybe a Christian friend of mine passed it on.”

The pastor requested anonymity – the same request that high government officials made, no matter how trivial the matters they divulged.

The pastor said he told the journalist he did not pay people to convert. “People choose to become Christians out of their own free will,” he said. “I am working within the constitution of the country.”

Still a Monarchy

Asked why the church remained underground in spite of a provision for religious freedom in the new constitution, the pastor replied, “Virtually, Bhutan is still a monarchy. The time is yet to come when we have the assurance of protection.”

His wife, wearing the ankle-length woollen skirt or Kira that is the national dress for women, smiled at what was perhaps a naïve question – the power of the monarchy is beyond question. By law all Bhutanese citizens wear the national dress in schools and certain public, government and religious places. Non-compliance can result in fines or imprisonment.

Asked what would happen if authorities found out about their underground church, the pastor said that before 2008 they would have been arrested because Christianity was banned.

“Even now, there will be serious repercussions,” he said. “What exactly will happen, I do not know. But no Christian worker will take the risk to find it out the hard way.”

To construct any building, Bhutanese citizens require a licence from the government.

“As far as the governance is concerned, the Royal Government of Bhutan is very caring,” he said. “We get free education and free medicine and hospitalization, and there is a sense of security because the crime rate is very low. But asking for a licence for a church is beyond our imagination as of now.”

The present king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck (selected in 2006 but not crowned until 2008) rules absolutely, said local Buddhists, though not with any regret.

“It’s democracy, but still not a democracy,” said a civil government employee requesting anonymity. “It’s the king who makes all important decisions.”

Asked about the Christian presence, he said Christianity grew even at a time when it was banned. “There are many secret Christians. They meet in secret locations for prayer.”

The clean-shaven, medium-built 31-year-old king, an avid soccer fan who studied at Phillips Academy and Wheaton College in Massachusetts in the United States and the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, is seen as a progressive person but conservative in matters of religion and culture.

According to the new constitution, the king is the head of state, though the parliament has the power to impeach him by a two-thirds majority vote – a provision not likely to be used anytime in the future, according to popular sentiment.


Suggesting that Christian fears are warranted, a pastor from Pheuntsholing town near the India border explained that memories of a period of severe crackdown on underground churches were still fresh in the minds of local Christians.

“I was picked up from a house where I was conducting Sunday worship in Tsirang district in September 1995 and put in a prison,” said the pastor. “I was asked to leave the district with immediate effect, and I had to move to another location.”

His voice trembling as he spoke by telephone, he said, “Once the government discovers that you are a Christian, nothing will be free for you.”

The pastor said that although there are no violent attacks on Christians, they do face discrimination by the government and society.

According to the government-run weekly Kuensel of Nov. 4, 1992, the National Assembly banned Christianity in 1969 and in 1979. The edicts against Christians were said to have passed due to reports of conversions to Christianity in south Bhutan, inhabited mostly by people of Nepali origin.

In the early 1990s the government of Bhutan began a massive crackdown on Christians, mainly in southern parts, and intensified it towards the end of the decade.

The authorities identified Christians in government or business and took their signatures on a form pledging compliance with rules and regulations governing practice of religion. There were several reports, though unconfirmed, of violence against Christians by police and village heads during the period.

In April 2001, international media reported on persecution of Christians in Bhutan when police stormed churches on Palm Sunday to register Christians, many of who were detained and threatened.

Almost a decade later, the legal standing of the Christian minority under the new constitution remains unclear.

Ambiguous Laws

In May 2009, the national daily Bhutan Times quoted Interior Minister Lyonpo Minjur Dorji as saying, “It was absolutely okay if people were born Christian … The constitution supports them. But it is unlawful to convert. If we get proof of proselytization in the country, we shall definitely take action.”

The newspaper noted that there are no official churches in Bhutan. “And most of the Sunday masses and gatherings are held in the homes of pastors and converts,” noted the daily, which occasionally criticizes government policies, though mildly and without taking aim at any particular official.

The new Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan, drafted in 2005 and officially adopted in 2008, gives religious freedom to all the citizens of the country but also contains a virtual “anti-conversion law” as found in neighboring India.

The exotic, official website of the constitution – which displays the national emblem of two dragons and a lotus surmounted by a jewel symbolizing harmony between secular and religious powers and sovereignty of the nation – states that all Bhutanese citizens “shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” in Article 7.

But Article 7 adds: “No person shall be compelled to belong to another faith by means of coercion or inducement.”

What the terms “coercion” and “inducement” mean is not clear. Whether “proselytization,” which the home minister recently suggested was illegal, means propagation of Christianity or conversion by “coercion or inducement,” is also left unclear.

The Supreme Court of Bhutan, whose judge appointments have yet to be completed and are not yet functional, is likely to have the prerogative to interpret the constitution.

What is unambiguous, however, is that the government of Bhutan will continue to preserve the uniform culture of the country, which, it maintains, is based on Buddhist values. Article 3 of the constitution says that “Buddhism is the spiritual heritage of Bhutan, which promotes among others the principles and values of peace, non-violence, compassion and tolerance,” and “it is the responsibility of religious institutions and personalities to promote the spiritual heritage of the country while also ensuring that religion remains separate from politics in Bhutan.”

Article 4 mandates the government to “endeavour to preserve, protect and promote the cultural heritage of the country,” adding that “parliament may enact such legislation as may be necessary to advance the cause of the cultural enrichment of Bhutanese society.”

According to Article 8, it is a fundamental duty of all citizens to “preserve, protect and respect the culture and heritage of the nation.”

“Apart from religious restrictions, we are happy to be in Bhutan,” said a pastor from Thimphu. “Look at the unrest India, China and Nepal have from time to time. We are happy and thankful to God for this nation.”

Report from Compass Direct News