The link below is to an article reporting on the latest persecution news out of Iran, where churches continue to minister despite opposition.
For more visit:
The link below is to an article reporting on the latest persecution news out of Iran, where churches continue to minister despite opposition.
For more visit:
The link below is to an article I found while surfing the net – an 11-year-old ordained minister at a church in the USA. You have got to be kidding! How utterly ridiculous.
Evangelist was traveling with sons from one village to another.
NEW DELHI, April 22 (CDN) — Hindu extremists beat a pastor and evangelist unconscious in front of his sons earlier this month in Madhya Pradesh state.
Ramesh Devda, 30, from Dhadhniya, Meghnagar district, said he was attacked on April 4 at about 11 a.m. after leading a prayer meeting in Chikklia village. He said he was on his way to Bhajidongra, at the border of Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat states, by motorcycle with his two sons, 10-year-old Elias, and 8-year-old Shimon, to lead another prayer meeting.
When he reached Raseda village, he said, suddenly three people on two motorcycles blocked his way and forced him to stop.
“Suddenly out of nowhere these three men appeared in two motorcycles – they blocked me and tilted my motorcycle,” Pastor Devda told Compass. “We fell down. They were carrying big bamboo sticks and clubs. They started beating me, and then they called and three more men came and started to attack me.”
He said he was thankful that his sons were spared from beating, though his older son sustained a leg injury in the course of the attack.
“They were angry at me and were threatening to kill me and were warning me not to come to their area again,” he said. “My sons were screaming at the top of their voices, and they were afraid. One of the men hit me on my forehead with a big bamboo stick, cracking my skull. The others were also beating me on my body, especially my back with bamboo sticks.”
A blow to the forehead temporarily blinded him, he said.
“My eyes were darkened, and I fell down, and they proceeded to beat me even more,” he said. “The men were also abusive in the foulest language that I had heard, and they were drunk.”
People passing by heard the two boys crying out and came to help, and the attackers fled, he said, leaving the unconscious pastor and his sons.
“I do not know who helped me, as I was unconscious,” Pastor Devda said. “But I came to know later that local Christians also came in and called the emergency helpline. As a result, an ambulance came, which then took me to the hospital.”
He was taken to Anita Surgical Hospital on Station Road in Dahod, Gujarat. There a physician identified only as Dr. Bharpoda told him that he had fractured his skull.
“I am being treated for my wounds now, but there is still a lot of pain,” Pastor Devda said.
A Christian for 15 years, Pastor Devda has been in Christian leadership for 11 years and now serves with the Christian Reformed Fellowship of India. He has two other children, Ashish and 4-year-old Sakina, and his wife Lalita, 28, is active with him in Christian service.
Pastor Devda leads congregations in Chikklia, Bhajidongra and Dhadhniya villages.
“I have heard that I was attacked because the people of Chikklia did not like me conducting the Sunday service there,” he said. “The people who beat me up do belong to a Hindu fundamentalist outfit, and some believers in Chikklia know them. I can recognize them if I see them again.”
He said, however, that he does not want to file a First Information Report (FIR) with police.
“There is no one supporting me or standing with me in my village or my mission, and I am myself fearful, as I have to continue to minister to these very people,” Pastor Devda said. “I know my attack was pre-planned, but I do not want to report it to the police.”
A Christian co-worker from Rajasthan was also attacked about a month ago in equally brutal fashion, he said, but also refrained from filing an FIR because of fear of repercussions.
Vijayesh Lal, secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of India’s Religious Liberty Commission, said the tribal belt that extends to the border areas of Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan, has been a hot spot for anti-Christian activity since the late 1990s.
“Only recently a 65-year-old evangelist was beaten and stripped by Hindu extremists,” he said. “It is a worrisome trend, and one that should be dealt with not only by the government but by the secular media and civil society in general.”
Report from Compass Direct News
Hindu group declares country a Hindu state; upper castes seek halt to conversions.
KATHMANDU, Nepal, April 19 (CDN) — With the government refusing to listen to their three-year plea for an official cemetery and ignoring a protracted hunger strike, Nepal’s Christians are now seeking redress from the Supreme Court.
“Every day there are two to three deaths in the community, and with each death we face a hard time with the burial,” said Chari Bahadur Gahatraj, a pastor who filed a petition in the high court on March 13 asking it to intervene as authorities of Nepal’s oldest Hindu temple had begun demolishing the graves of Christians there.
Gahatraj and Man Bahadur Khatri are both members of the newly formed Christian Burial Ground Prayer and National Struggle Committee that since last month began leading a relay hunger strike in a public area of the capital, asking for a graveyard. They said they were forced to go to court after the Pashupati Area Development Trust (PADT), which runs Nepal’s oldest Hindu shrine, the Pashupatinath temple, said it would no longer allow non-Hindus to use the temple’s forested land.
“We don’t want to hurt the sentiments of any community,” Gahatraj told Compass. “Nor are we trying to grab the land owned by a temple. We are ready to accept any plot given to us. All we are asking for is that the burials be allowed till we get an alternate site.”
Judge Awadhesh Kumar Yadav has since ordered the government and PADT not to prevent Christians from using the forest for burials until the dispute is resolved. The legal battle, however, now involves a counter-suit. Hindu activist Bharat Jangam filed a second writ on March 20, saying that since the forest was the property of a Hindu temple, non-Hindus should not be allowed to bury their dead there just as churches do not allow Hindu burials.
Subsequently, the court decided to hear the two petitions together, and yesterday (April 18), the hearings began. While two lawyers argued on behalf of Gahatraj and Khatri, a cohort of 15 lawyers spoke against their petition. The next hearing is scheduled for May 3.
Along with the legal battle, Christians have kept up their relay hunger strike. To step up pressure on the government, the protestors also announced they would lead a funeral march to the offices of the prime minister and the culture minister and hand over coffins to them as a symbolic protest. If that too failed, they warned they would have no option but to go on hunger strike in front of the prime minister’s office and parliament, this time carrying dead bodies with them.
Alarmed at the rate the issue was snowballing, the government finally responded. Yesterday Culture Minister Gangalal Tuladhar opened talks with the protestors, agreeing to continue the negotiations after three days. The government also formed a four-member committee to look into the demand. Currently, Christians are asking for cemetery land in all 75 districts of Nepal.
Protestors were wary of the government’s intent in the overture.
“This could be a ploy to buy time and bury the issue,” said a member of the Christian committee formed to advise parliament on drafting the new constitution, who requested anonymity.
Though the committee formed to look into the Christians’ demand for burial land has been asked to present a report within two weeks, Christians suspect the panel is dragging its feet.
“The new constitution has to be promulgated by May 28, but it does not seem likely that the main political parties will be able to accomplish the task,” the Christian committee member said. “And if the constitution doesn’t materialize in time, there will be a crisis and our problem will be shelved.”
Adding to their unease, Christians are now facing a redoubled campaign by Hindu groups for the restoration of Hinduism as the state religion, five years after parliament declared Nepal, the world’s only Hindu kingdom, secular.
If the new constitution had been promulgated last year, it would have consolidated secularism in Nepal. But with the country missing the deadline due to protracted power-sharing rows among the major political parties, Christians still feel under threat.
On Thursday (April 14), when the country celebrated the start of the indigenous new year 2068 with a public holiday, the Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal, which seeks the reinstatement of Hinduism as the state religion, kicked off a campaign at the Bhadrakali temple in Kathmandu. As curious onlookers and soldiers patrolling the nearby army headquarters looked on, party members fervently blew into conch shells and rang bells to draw people’s attention to their demand.
The party, which is also seeking the restoration of monarchy, took some oblique shots at the Christian community as well.
“There is a deliberate and systematic attempt by organizations to convert Hindus,” said Kamal Thapa, party chief and a former minister. “These organizations are guided by foreign powers and foreign funds. If the widespread conversion of Hindus is not stopped immediately, we will have to take stern measures.”
Three days later, an umbrella of Hindu groups – the Rastriya Dharma Jagaran Mahasabha (the National Religion Resurrection Conference) held a massive gathering in the capital, declaring Nepal a “Hindu state” and meeting with no official objection. The proclamation came as the climax to a three-day public program calling for the restoration of “the traditional Hindu state.” Several Hindu preachers and scholars from neighboring India attended the program, held on the grounds of the Pashupatinath temple, which is also a UNESCO-declared World Heritage Site.
The “Hindu state” proclamation was the brainchild of Shankar Prasad Pandey, a former member of parliament from Nepali Congress, the second largest party in Nepal, now in opposition. Though Pandey was a sitting Member of Parliament in 2006, when the body unanimously declared Nepal secular, he began opposing the move soon afterwards, leading four campaigns against it nationwide.
“I consider the nation and the Hindu religion to be more important than the party,” said Pandey, known as the MP who began to go barefoot 32 years ago to show solidarity with Nepalese, who are among the poorest in the world. “Over 90 percent of the Nepalese want Nepal to be a Hindu state. However, the government is led by people whose only concern is power and money.”
Pandey’s campaign is supported by Hindu groups from India and the West: Narendranath Saraswati, who is the Shankaracharya or religious head of a prominent Hindu shrine in India’s Varanasi city; Dr. Tilak Chaitanya, chief of a group in the United Kingdom that propagates the Gita, the holy book of the Hindus; and Tahal Kishore, head of a Hindu organization, Radha Krishna Sevashram, in the United States.
Two weeks before the May 28 deadline for the new constitution, Pandey and his followers plan to step up the campaign for a “Hindu state” in the capital. Though Pandey denies it could stir up animosity between the majority-Hindus and Christians – whose minority population is said to have crossed 2 million but is actually only 850,801, according to Operation World – there are fears of religious tension if not outright violence.
The Hindu rallies continue to grow as a pressure tactic. Yesterday (April 18), members of Nepal Brahman Samaj, an organization of “upper castes” from whose echelons temple priests are appointed, fought with security forces in front of parliament house, demanding their rights be respected and an end to conversions.
More Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) campaigning is scheduled on April 29, when the Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal’s Thapa has called for a mass gathering in the capital.
Report from Compass Direct News
First woman sentenced to die for speaking ill of Muhammad says she never got to defend herself.
SHEIKHUPURA, Pakistan, November 17 (CDN) — Ashiq Masih, with his stooped posture, frail body and dull yellow eyes, stands in a small compartment in the Sheikhupura District Jail with his three daughters – Sidra, Eesha and Eeshum. The girls are weeping silently.
On the other side of a metal grille is Asia Noreen, the birth mother of two of the girls and the first woman in Pakistan to receive the death sentence on charges of blaspheming Islam’s prophet. Eeshum, 12-years-old and mentally disabled, whines like a baby for her mother, asking her when she will be back.
“I will be back,” she says to her daughters, as they feel their mother’s fingers through the gaps in the grille. “Don’t you worry, now.” But tears run down her face, too.
Arrested on June 19, 2009, Asia (alternatively spelled Aaysa) Noreen was accused of blaspheming Muhammad and defaming Islam. A judge under pressure from area Islamists convicted her under Pakistan’s widely condemned blasphemy statutes on Nov. 8.
“I don’t know why – when I walked into court that day, I just knew,” she said, tears returning to her eyes and her voice shaking. “And when the judge announced my death sentence, I broke down crying and screaming. In the entire year that I have spent in this jail, I have not been asked even once for my statement in court. Not by the lawyers and not by the judge. After this, I have lost hope in any kind of justice being given to me.”
In an interview with Compass at the jail northwest of Lahore, Punjab Province, Noreen said the triggering incident resulted from a “planned conspiracy” to “teach her a lesson,” as villagers in Ittanwali, near Nankana Sahib about 75 kilometers (47 miles) from Lahore, resented her and her family because of a few mishaps.
“What my village people have accused me of is a complete lie,” she said. “I had previously had a row over a trivial issue of water running out of my house onto the street, and a man called Tufail verbally abused me. On June 14, when I was out picking falsas [a type of berry] with about 30 women, they again asked me to convert to Islam.”
Noreen said the women of the village frequently asked her to renounce Christianity while they worked in the fields, and that she refused each time.
“This time, too, I said that I saw no reason why I should leave my own religion,” she said. “They then asked me about Jesus Christ, and I told them to go and ask the local mullah and not to bother me with those questions.”
Meantime, one of the women asked her for water, she said. After she had fetched it, the others told the woman not to drink water brought by an “untouchable” and “dirty woman,” Noreen said.
“I asked them if Christians were not human …why the discrimination?” she said. “This annoyed them, and they started verbally abusing me. We were soon engaged in a heated argument.”
She said that five days later, a mob led by Qari (one who has memorized the Quran) Muhammad Saalim burst upon her after some of the women told him about the incident in the fields. The mob pressured her to admit that she had blasphemed.
“They have been saying that I confessed to my crime, but the fact is that I said I was sorry for any word that I may have said during the argument that may have hurt their feelings,” she said.
Police arrived as they were beating her and took Noreen into custody, where they registered a case under Section 295-C of the blasphemy laws against her based on the complaint of the imam.
“They [police] registered a false complaint, because the complainant [Saalim] was never present at the scene,” she said.
Noreen said she has been heart-broken and shattered since the conviction. Her husband immediately tried to console her.
“Everything will be just fine, you just have to stay steadfast in your faith,” Masih told her. “All of us are here beside you. Everyone is praying for you.”
His words seemed to give her some hope, but she turned and asked Compass a question that no one has been able to answer for her.
“How can an innocent person be accused, have a case in court after a false FIR [First Information Report], and then be given the death sentence, without even once taking into consideration what he or she has to say?”
A pastor from Sharing Life Ministry who has been ministering to Noreen during her confinement and was present at all hearings told Compass that the judge had retired to his chambers three times before announcing the verdict.
“He was visibly tense,” the pastor said. “The presence of a mob outside the courtroom was instrumental in the delivery of this harsh verdict.”
Sidra, about 15 years old and one of three children born to Masih from a previous marriage, indicated she was traumatized by the attack on her step-mother.
“I saw that mob burst upon my mother, slap her and beat her up,” she said, her eyes both sad and fearful. “I saw them push her hard against a wall and tear her clothes. They were abusing her. I went to free her from their grip, and I heard them say to my mother, ‘Admit that you said derogatory things about prophet Muhammad, and we will leave you alone.’ Why would my mother ever do anything like that?”
Noreen broke in, “Why was an FIR filed against me by Qari Saalim? Who is he? He doesn’t even know what I said or did.”
Noreen’s lawyers filed an appeal against the Nankana sessions court’s verdict in the Lahore High Court on Friday (Nov. 12), and the court is likely to take up the case soon.
Sidra said Muslim villagers have bullied her and others in the family. She said a man who has two children of his own beat Eesha.
Noreen said police have not harmed her, unusual for Pakistani suspects in blasphemy cases.
“I was never even mentally harassed by the police,” she said, adding that fellow inmates were also treating her well.
Sohail Johnson of the Sharing Life Ministry, which has been following the case from the onset, said authorities may have been aware that the sensitive nature of the case would instantly bring it into public light.
Noreen said she has not lost faith in Jesus.
“He will rescue me from this fake case and I will return home – please ask everyone to pray for me,” she said as two prison guards arrived in the barrack to escort her back to her cell.
In spite of international attention, there has been little response from the government of Pakistan or civil society. No local organization has planned demonstrations to protest the verdict, which could set a dangerous precedent.
Shahbaz Bhatti, federal minister for minorities and a Christian, has written to the Punjab Province government requesting protection for Noreen and her family, both inside and outside jail. During the visit to Sheikhupura, however, Compass observed no special security measures for her family.
Report from Compass Direct News
The Kazakh government continues to put pressure on foreign missionaries attempting to obtain visas to stay in the country. The Kazakh church is prepared for matters to get worse, reports MNN.
"Foreign involvement for the purpose of missionary work in Kazakhstan becomes increasingly difficult to happen," confirms Eric Mock, vice president of Ministry Operations for Slavic Gospel Association.
Norwegian news network Forum 18 conveys a number of instances in which the Kazakh government has denied visas to foreign missionaries of various minority faiths. A missionary visa, as it is, lasts only 180 days and cannot be renewed.
Mock says there is some fear that the visas will become even more restrictive. According to Forum 18, the Nur Otan Party has even created a document calling for further crackdown on "non-traditional faiths." Forum 18 quotes a report as saying, "The Nur Otan Party should devote special attention to the activity of non-traditional religious movements of destructive character. The destructive impact of such movements is very great."
With clear contempt toward the presence of evangelical Christian missionaries as well as missionaries for other minority faiths, the church as well as ministries like SGA need to prepare for any change. "[We need to] be sure that we do not assume that the world that we minister in today is the same that we minister in tomorrow," says Mock.
Whether or not missionary presence is increasingly restricted does not directly affect SGA, since their ministry mainly focuses on helping nationals. Still, won’t a crackdown harm the church? Mock says not as much as you might think.
"There is one thing that I saw [in Kazakhstan] that mostly encouraged my heart," explains Mock. "I saw a group of ethnic Kazakh young men who God has raised up with a passion to reach their own people. I had not really seen that in the past; it [had been] more of a Russian Baptist influence, but now I’m seeing Kazakh Baptist."
As long as changes don’t happen too abruptly, Mock says he believes the church will be able to handle any blows headed their way. The energy generated by young church leaders could be just what the Kazakh church needs to become self-sustaining. "With this new generation coming up, I think even with law changes, God has raised up this younger generation to make a profound impact for the sake of the Gospel."
If laws are passed too quickly or even just gradually, their effects will still of course be evident in the church. Mock says the best thing that we can do for them now is to pray. "There is nothing more important than praying for the believers in Kazakhstan to be passionate in reaching their own people, and to see more churches planted with that same commitment to advance the Gospel."
Report from the Christian Telegraph
Elder remains in critical condition after being stabbed in heart, stomach.
JAKARTA, Indonesia, September 15 (CDN) — An elder of a West Java church that Muslim groups attacked last month remains in critical condition after a motorcyclist stabbed him in the heart and stomach on his way to a service on Sunday (Sept. 12), according to Theophilus Bela, president of the Jakarta Christian Communication Forum.
Hasian Sihombing of Batak Christian Protestant Church (Huria Kristen Batak Protestan, or HKBP) sustained a wound to his heart of three centimeters. Also injured in the attack was the Rev. Luspida Simanjuntak, struck with a wooden block on her back, head and face by another motorcyclist when she tried to help Sihombing.
Simanjuntak, who suffered dizziness after the attack, was still weak and receiving hospital treatment along with Sihombing at Mitra Keluarga Hospital Bekasi Timur, Bela stated in an e-mail advisory today.
A member of the HKBP congregation, Ratna Gurning, told Compass that she was with Sihombing as he and other church members walked to the service in the Ciketing area of Bekasi, where the church has been meeting in an open field after officials in June sealed a house they had used for worship in the Pondok Timur housing complex in Jejalen Jaya sub-district, Bekasi.
“About 500 meters from church, they saw some  motorcyclists on eight motorcycles were following them,” Gurning said. “Suddenly, our church elder, Hasian, was stabbed in his stomach.”
Sihombing was bleeding profusely, Gurning said, and Pastor Simanjuntak came to help him.
“Rev. Luspida was beaten from behind with a wooden beam, which struck her head, face, and back,” Gurning said.
Gurning said that Pastor Simanjuntak recognized the assailants as having “come to a religious service of HKBP’s community” to protest.
On Aug. 8 at least 300 members of the Islamic People’s Forum and the Islamic Defenders Front broke through a police barricade and ordered 20 members of the HKBP church meeting in Ciketing to leave, according to Bela. When the church members refused, the protestors assaulted the group with sticks, stones or their bare hands. Some required hospital treatment.
The previous Sunday, Aug. 1, around 300 Muslim protestors and 300 police officers surrounded members of the HKBP as they worshiped in the open field, and one protestor hit Pastor Simanjuntak on the cheek.
The 1,500-strong congregation has been waiting for local officials to respond to a building permit application filed in 2006. When Muslim neighbors in December 2009 objected to the meetings in a housing complex on the grounds that the church had no permit, officials banned church members from meeting there.
With its building permit application delayed, the church ignored the ban, leading officials to seal the building on June 20. Bekasi Mayor Mochtar Mohammad on July 9 reportedly said he would allow the congregation to meet in public areas or at the city hall, and Pastor Simanjuntak moved worship to the proposed building site. Her church has now filed a case against the Bekasi administration.
Member of Parliament Sukur Nababan told Compass that police must apprehend the assailants in Sunday’s attack quickly. He refuted a comment by Jakarta and Bekasi police officials who said that the incident was not religiously motivated.
“This is not purely criminal,” Nababan said. “This incident was premeditated. Freedom of religious is the responsibility of the government.”
Nababan called on the Bekasi officials to grant a permit to the church for its Christian activities in accordance with the constitutional rights of all Indonesians.
The coordinator of HKBP church’s legal team, Saor Siagian, agreed that the police leaders’ views that the attack was not religiously motivated were erroneous.
“The stabbing of Hasian was not purely a criminal act,” Siagian told Compass. “This incident was pre-planned, and it was terrorism against religious rights.”
On the day of the attack, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono reportedly asked Djoko Suyanto, minister of political, legal and security affairs, to work with the head of Indonesian Police Jendral Bambang Hendarso Danuri to arrest the assailants.
The chairman of the Communion of Churches in Indonesia, the Rev. Andreas Yewangoe, asked police to thoroughly investigate, stop allowing violence and guarantee security for the congregation.
“We also ask all Christians to remain steadfast in the face of this calamity and not be provoked,” he said.
A demonstration in front of National Police Headquarters in Jakarta is scheduled for Thursday (Sept. 16) at 2:30 p.m. to urge police to seriously investigate the attack.
Report from Compass Direct News
The link that follows this post is to a story in the Edmonton Journal about a ‘church’ service held at the McClure United Church. The article relates how the service was run by clowns (it could be argued – in more ways than one), including the minister as a clown, the Lord’s Supper being mimed and a so-called ‘liturgical dance,’ whatever that means. In short, this is an example of another ‘church’ that has lost its way.
The article seems to suggest that there was another great event in the church as well – at another service children bounced balloons around the building as the minister read about the place of balloons in worship from a very ‘authorative’ book on Christian worship by Ann Weems, called ‘Balloons Belong in Church.’ It would seem that the true blueprint for Christian worship has been put aside at McClure United Church. Then there was the Wednesday Worship Hour that was spiced up by the Hawaii Night theme, complete with dress up and limbo contest – all very sad and tragic.
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.
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