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


Ministry of Justice decision suggests spreading Christianity may be unlawful in Turkey.

ISTANBUL, March 20 (Compass Direct News) – Turkey’s decision last month to try two Christians under a revised version of a controversial law for “insulting Turkishness” because they spoke about their faith came as a blow to the country’s record of freedom of speech and religion.

A Silivri court on Feb. 24 received the go-ahead from the Ministry of Justice to try Christians Turan Topal and Hakan Tastan under the revised Article 301 – a law that has sparked outrage among proponents of free speech as journalists, writers, activists and lawyers have been tried under it. The court had sent the case to the Ministry of Justice after the government on May 8, 2008 put into effect a series of changes – which critics have called “cosmetic” – to the law.

The justice ministry decision came as a surprise to Topal and Tastan and their lawyer, as missionary activities are not illegal in Turkey. Defense lawyer Haydar Polat said no concrete evidence of insulting Turkey or Islam has emerged since the case first opened two years ago.

“The trial will continue from where it left off – to be honest, we thought they wouldn’t give permission [for the case to continue],” said Polat, “because there was no persuasive evidence of ‘degrading Turkishness and Islam’ in the case file.”

A Ministry of Justice statement claimed that approval to try the case came in response to the original statement by three young men – Fatih Kose, Alper Eksi and Oguz Yilmaz – that Topal and Tastan were conducting missionary activities in an effort to show that Islam was a primitive and fictitious religion that results in terrorism, and to portray Turks as a “cursed people.”

Prosecutors have yet to produce any evidence indicating the defendants described Islam in these terms, and Polat said Turkey’s constitution grants all citizens freedom to choose, be educated in and communicate their religion, making missionary activities legal.

“This is the point that really needs to be understood,” said Polat. “In Turkey, constitutionally speaking it is not a crime to be a Christian or to disseminate the Christian faith. However, in reality there have been problems.”

The lawyer contended that prosecuting lawyers have given political dimensions to the case by rendering baseless accusations in a nationalistic light.

“From their point of view, missionary activity carried out by missionaries of imperialistic countries is harmful for Turkish culture and the country overall,” Polat said.

Tastan said that although he has always been confident that he and Topal will be acquitted, the decision of the Ministry of Justice to try them under Article 301 left him deeply disappointed in his own country.

“After this last hearing, I realized that I didn’t feel as comfortable as I had been in the past,” Tastan told Compass. “I believed that surely the Ministry of Justice would never make the decision they did.”

Tastan said he was uneasy that his country would deem his Christian faith as insulting to the very Turkishness in which he takes pride.

“This is the source of my uneasiness: I love this country so much, this country’s people, that as a loving Turk who is a Christian to be tried for insulting Turkey has really cut me up,” said Tastan. “Because I love this nation, I’ve never said anything against it. That I’m a Christian, yes, I say that and I will continue to do so. But I think they are trying to paint the image that we insult, dislike and hate Turks. This really makes me sad and heartsick.”

If nothing else, Tastan said, the trial has provided an opportunity for Turkish Christians to show God’s love and also make themselves known to their compatriots. He called the ministerial decision duplicitous.

“A government that talks the European Union talk, claims to respect freedom, democracy, and accept everyone, yet rejects me even though I’m a Turkish citizen who is officially a Christian on his ID card, has made me sad,” he said. “That’s why I’m disappointed.”



At the time of their arrests, Topal and Tastan were volunteers with The Bible Research Center, which last week acquired official association status and is now called “The Society for Propagating Knowledge of the Bible.” In the last court hearing, prosecutors demanded that further inquiries be conducted into the nature of the association since the defendants used their contact lists to reach people interested in Christianity.

“Because they think like this, they believe that the Bible center is an important unit to the missionary activities,” said Polat. “And they allege that those working at this center are also guilty.”

The court has yet to decide whether police can investigate the Christian association.

Polat and the defendants said they believe that as no evidence has been presented, the case should come to a conclusion at the next hearing on May 28.

“From a legal standpoint, we hope that they will acquit us, that it will be obvious that there is no proof,” said Tastan. “There have only been allegations … none of the witnesses have accused us in court. I’m not a legal expert, but I believe that if there is no proof and no evidence of ‘insulting,’ then we should be set free.”

The initial charges prepared by the Silivri state prosecutor against Tastan and Topal were based on “a warning telephone call to the gendarme” claiming that Christian missionaries were trying to form illegal groups in local schools and insulting Turkishness, the military and Islam.

Despite a court summons sent to the Silivri and Istanbul gendarme headquarters requesting six gendarme soldiers to testify as prosecution witnesses, none have stepped forward to do so. At a June 24, 2008 hearing, two witnesses for the prosecution declared they did not know the defendants and had never seen them before facing them in the courtroom. Several witnesses – including one of the original complainants, Kose – have failed to show up on various trial dates.

“We believe the case has arrived to a concluding stage, because all evidence has been collected and the witnesses have been heard,” Polat said. “We believe the accused will be dismissed. The inverse would surprise us.”

Polat underlined that while the case shows that human rights violations in Turkey are still a “serious problem,” it is also true that Turkey’s desire to join the European Union has brought sincere efforts to improve democratic processes. He attested, however, that establishing a true democracy can be a long process that requires sacrifices.

“It is my conviction that there is no other way for people to believe in and establish democracy than through struggle,” he said.

Tastan added that he sees hope that the notion that being “Turkish” means being Muslim is breaking. Due to exposure to media coverage of the murder trial of the April 18, 2007 slaughter of three Christians in Malatya, he said, Turks are becoming aware that there are fellow citizens who are Christians and are even dying for their Lord.

“This makes me happy, because it means freedom for the Turkish Christians that come after us,” said Tastan. “At least they won’t experience these injustices. I believe we will accomplish this.”

For the time being, though, the Ministry of Justice’s decision that Tastan and Topal can be tried under the revised Article 301 law appears to contribute to the belief that to promulgate a non-Islamic faith in Turkey is tantamount to treason. As Turkish online human rights magazine Bianet headlined its coverage of the decision, “Ministerial Edict: You Can Be a Christian But Do Not Tell Anyone!”  

Report from Compass Direct News