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

Second Wave of Deportations Hits Foreign Christians in Morocco

Muslim hardliners pressure government; nationals fears they may be next victim of ‘purging.’

ISTANBUL, May 21 (CDN) — In a second wave of deportations from Morocco, officials of the majority-Muslim country have expelled 26 foreign Christians in the last 10 days without due process.

Following the expulsion of more than 40 foreign Christians in March, the deportations were apparently the result of Muslim hardliners pressuring the nation’s royalty to show Islamic solidarity.

The latest deportations bring the number of Christians who have had to leave Morocco to about 105 since early March. Christians and expert observers are calling this a calculated effort to purge the historically moderate country, known for its progressive policies, of all Christian elements – both foreign and national.

“I don’t see the end,” said Salim Sefiane, a Moroccan living abroad. “I see this as a ‘cleansing’ of Christians out of Morocco, and then I see this turning against the Moroccan church, which is already underground, and then persecution of Moroccan Christians, which is already taking place in recent days.”

At least two Moroccan Christians have been beaten in the last 10 days, sources told Compass, and police have brought other Moroccan Christians to police stations daily for psychologically “heavy” interrogations.

Authorities are enquiring about the activities of foreign and local Christians.

Forcibly Ejected

Legal sources said that according to Moroccan law, foreigners who have lived in the country for more than 10 years cannot be deported unless they are accused of a crime. They have the right to appeal the deportation order within 48 hours.

With only hours’ notice and forced escort to the country’s exit ports, almost none of the deportees were able to appeal their deportations.

“Most of these [deportations] are happening over the weekends, when the courts are closed,” Sefiane said. “Most of them are done in a way where they’re bringing them in [to the police station], intimidating them, and manhandling them out of the country. Many of them are not even going back to say goodbye to their wives, or even to pack a bag.”

With the exception of three foreigners, in none of the forced deportations did authorities produce an official deportation order, sources said. In many cases, Moroccan officials used embassies to notify foreigners that they were being deported. In most cases, foreigners were presented with a document in Arabic for them to sign that stated that they “understood” that they were being deported.

Compass learned of one case in which a foreigner was forced to the airport, and when he resisted he was forcibly drugged and sent to his native country.

“The expats in the country are very vulnerable, and the way it has happened has been against the laws of the country,” said a European Christian who was deported last week after nearly a decade of running his business in Morocco. “When I tried to walk away from the situation, I was physically stopped.”

The deported Christian said that authorities never informed any of the Christian foreigners of their rights, when in fact there are national laws protecting foreigners. 

“Basically they are trying to con everyone into leaving the country,” he said.

Deported foreigners have had to leave their families behind in Morocco, as well as their friends and communities. Many of the deportees were the male breadwinners of the family and have left their families behind as they try to decide their future.

“It’s devastating, because we have invested years of our lives into our community, business community and charity sectors,” said the European Christian. “People flooded to our house when they heard I was bundled into the back of a police car by the local authorities. It was like a death in the family – forcibly ejected from the country without being able to say goodbyes, just like that.”

The deportees have included Christians from North America, Latin America, Europe, Africa, New Zealand and Korea.

“It’s come out of left field,” said the European. “No one really knows why this is happening.”

Internal Pressure

A regional legal expert said on condition of anonymity that a small number of extremist Muslims have undertaken a media campaign to “get [Christians’] good works out of the public eye and demonize Christians,” in order to expel them and turn the nation against local Christians – some of whom are third-generation followers of Jesus.

“There are too many eyes and ears to what they want to do to the native Christians,” said the expert. “They’re trying to get to them …They want to shut down the native Moroccan Christians.”

Deportation orders are coming from the Ministry of Interior, and speculation on the reason for the sudden spike in expulsions has centered on the arrival of a new, hard-line Muslim interior director in January.

Moroccan officials have cited “proselytism” as the reason for the deportations. Reuters news agency reported Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs Minister Ahmed Toufiq as saying “proselytism” and “activism of some foreigners” had “undermined public order.”

On April 12 local media reported that 7,000 religious Muslim leaders signed a document describing the work of Christians within Morocco as “moral rape” and “religious terrorism.” The statement from the religious leaders came amid a nationwide mudslinging campaign geared to vilify Christians in Morocco for “proselytism” – widely perceived as bribing people to change their faith.

Religious rights advocates point out that under Article 18 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the more than 100 foreigners who had lived in Morocco, some for decades, not only had the right to stay in the country but had contributed to the nation. 

“They expelled people who helped build up the country, trained people, educated Moroccan children, cared for orphans and widows, increased the GDP and trade,” said the regional legal expert. “These people they expelled weren’t even proselytizing under their own law. There’s an international standard, yet they changed the definition of the terminology and turned it into this horrible ‘religious terrorism.’”

One of the country’s most prestigious educational institutions, George Washington Academy in Casablanca, has come under fierce criticism from media and investigation by authorities.

“The biggest problem is the image the Ministry of Justice is pushing about who the Christian foreigners are,” said another observer on condition of anonymity. “All the articles have been extreme exaggerations of the manipulative aspect of what foreigners were doing, and especially when it comes to minors.”

Local Christians have reported to sources outside of Morocco that attitudes towards them, which used to be more tolerant, have also shifted as a result of the extremist-led campaign, and some are experiencing family and societal pressure and discrimination as well.

International Forces

While the deportations have perplexed the local Christian community, the regional legal expert said that in some ways this was calculated and inevitable.

He said that the Organization of the Islamic Conference had been putting pressure on countries across the Middle East and North Africa to remove their Christian elements. Iraq, with its decline in Christian population from a few million to a few hundred thousand over the last decade, is a case in point.

“Countries which have been more forward looking and spoken about rights, freedoms and equalities have been pressured to demonstrate their Muslim credentials, and the best way to do this is to sanitize [religious] minorities from the borders,” he said.

Congressman Frank Wolf (R-Va.), co-chairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, has called congressional hearings on June 17 to examine the human rights situation in Morocco in light of the expulsions. On Wednesday (May 19) Wolf called on the U.S. government to suspend $697.5 million in aid it has pledged to Morocco based on criteria that it is “ruling justly.”

“We’ve been told the Christians are a threat to the national security, so they are using terrorism laws against peace-loving Christians,” said the deported European Christian. “But it is massively backfiring.”

The Christian described how the Moroccan friends of Christian foreigners have been asking why they are being deported for their faith.

“They are being impacted by the reality of Christ through this, and it’s having more of an effect on the community than years and years of quietly demonstrating Christ peacefully and lawfully,” he said. “By breaking their own laws, they have opened the lid on the reality of the life of Christ.”

There are an estimated 1,000 Moroccan Christian converts. They are not recognized by the government. About 99 percent of Morocco’s population of more than 33 million is Muslim.

Report from Compass Direct News