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

Christmas Season Attacks Worry Christians in India

Hindu extremists launch two assaults and claim hundreds of ‘reconversions.’

NEW DELHI, December 22 (CDN) — With at least two violent attacks and alleged “reconversion” of over 1,700 Christians in the week leading up to Christmas, a sense of fear is growing among India’s minority Christian community.

On Sunday (Dec. 20), Hindu extremists attacked a church during worship in western Maharashtra state’s Sindhudurg district and a Christmas exhibition in Gwalior city in central Madhya Pradesh state. The following day, extremists claimed having converted over 1,700 tribal (aboriginal) Christians “back” to Hinduism in western Gujarat state.

“Christmas is a favorite time for violence against Christians in India, as it intimidates the Christian community at large,” said Dr. John Dayal, member of the government’s National Integration Council, headed by Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh.

Dayal pointed out that the first mass attack on Christians in India took place in Gujarat’s Dangs district during Christmas in 1998, setting the stage for future attacks through the season.

“Then Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee [of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP] went to see the damage [in Dangs], but instead of commiserating with the victims, he called for a national debate on conversions,” Dayal said. “That political philosophy has been behind the festive season attacks on the Christian community.”

The Rev. Anand Muttungal of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Madhya Pradesh said the attacks around Christmas could be a reaction to increased and favorable coverage of Christians and churches in newspapers and television channels during the festival season.

“Rightwing extremists cannot tolerate this, and they cannot stop it either,” he said. “So, in frustration, they launch attacks.”

On Christmas Eve of 2007, eastern Orissa’s Kandhamal district witnessed a massive spate of anti-Christian attacks that killed at least four Christians and burned 730 houses and 95 churches.

Arson in Madhya Pradesh

The assailants in the Dec. 20 attack in Madhya Pradesh state have been identified as members of the extreme rightwing outfit Bajrang Dal. Muttungal said members of the Hindu extremist group shouted Hindu slogans and burned artwork depicting biblical scenes at an annual Christmas fair organized by the Catholic Church in Gwalior city.

The mayor of Gwalior had inaugurated the two-day fair on Saturday (Dec. 19), and it was organized with due permission from authorities, he said.

“The incident has spread panic among Christians in the state,” reported Indian Catholic, a news portal run by the Catholic Church in India.

The portal quoted Archbishop Leo Cornelio of Bhopal as saying that the attack “is a matter of serious concern for Christians, especially when we are preparing to celebrate Christmas.”

Three of the attackers were arrested, and two of them were sent to judicial custody by a local court.

Also on Sunday (Dec. 20), around 60 men barged into the New Life Fellowship (NLF) church in Kankauli area in Maharashtra’s Sindhudurg district and beat the pastor, his wife and a few other Christians, according to NLF Pastor Atul Bhore. The church meets at the privately owned Anant Hotel in Kankauli.

“The attackers, all men, accused us of converting Hindus,” the 37-year-old pastor told Compass. “Then they beat us, including my wife, with their hands and legs. My back is still in pain.”

The attackers were allegedly led by a local leader of the Hindu extremist Shiv Sena party, identified as Vaibhav Naik. Also taking a lead role in the attack was a local leader of the ruling Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), Rupesh Nagrekar.

The NCP is part of the ruling state coalition with the Congress Party. As policy, both parties renounce the Hindu nationalist ideology of the opposition Shiv Sena party and its ally the BJP. But involvement of local leaders of the two “secular” parties is not uncommon in Maharashtra.

An official from the Kankauli police station said police were on the lookout for the attackers, and that they would be arrested soon.

A Christian from the NLF church said police were initially reluctant to take action against the attackers.

“The police warned us against ‘conversions,’ as if the allegations made against us were true,” the Christian said. “Only after Dr. Abraham Mathai from the Maharashtra State Minorities Commission intervened did the police show interest in prosecuting the attackers.”

‘Reconversions’ in Gujarat

Following these two attacks, yesterday (Dec. 21) Hindu extremist group Shree Sampraday Seva Samiti (Service Committee of the Hindu sect Shree Sampraday) claimed to have “reconverted” 1,747 people to Hinduism in Gujarat state’s Surat city, reported The Times of India newspaper.

“The camp to reconvert tribals, who had embraced Christianity, was held in the city for the first time, and nearly 5,000 people from Maharashtra and Gujarat participated in the ceremony,” the newspaper reported.

About 10 Hindu priests chanted mantras at a fire ritual, around which sat those willing to “get back” to Hinduism, it stated, adding that participants were given a meditation word and sacred thread to mark their “reconversion.”

“We organized the event in Surat to promote Hinduism in urban areas,” one of the organizers, Yashwant More, told the newspaper. “We have a series of events planned in the near future to hold such reconversion camps in urban areas of Gujarat. In January, events are planned in Vadodara and Silvassa.”

Gujarat has an anti-conversion law, known as the Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act, which mandates all those seeking to convert, as well as clergy involved in any “conversion ceremony,” to seek prior permission from district authorities. No permission was sought for the event, noted the newspaper.

Christians complain that anti-conversion laws, in force in four other states including Madhya Pradesh, have been enacted only to harass Christians and are rarely used against Hindu nationalist groups.

Sociologists say that India’s tribal peoples, who have long practiced their own ethnic faiths, are not Hindus. Hindu nationalists are active mainly in tribal regions to “Hinduize” local villagers and repel conversions to other faiths.

Many reports of “reconversions,” however, have been found to be false. In 2007, Hindi-language daily Punjab Kesari reported that four Christian families in Nahan town, in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh, had “reconverted” to Hinduism. But a fact-finding team of the All India Christian Council revealed that none of the members of those families had ever converted to Christianity.

More than 80 percent of India’s 1.1 billion people are Hindus; Christians make up a meager 2.3 percent of the population.

Opposition and attacks will not dampen the spirit of Christmas, said Dayal.

“The birth of Christ is a harbinger of salvation, and this salvific promise goads us on to celebrate Christmas without fear,” he said. “We will not be cowed, or scared, or intimidated into retracting from our faith and from celebrating the birth of the Messiah.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Maldives: Almost no religious freedom for migrant workers

Just as Maldivian citizens do not have the right to religious freedom – Sunni Islam in the state-approved form is the only permitted faith – migrant workers too are denied this right, reports Odd Larsen, Forum 18 News Service.

The Maldives prevents the import of non-Muslim books and other religious items, for example by searching foreigners’ luggage for “un-Islamic” materials. Migrant workers are banned from practising non-Muslim faiths even privately, while the lack of privacy in which many live makes it almost impossible to worship “unnoticed by locals”, as one migrant worker put it to Forum 18 News Service.

Some 80,000 migrant workers – mostly Muslims, Buddhists, Christians and Hindus from South Asia – make up about a quarter of the country’s population, but are mostly in low-status jobs and find it difficult to challenge human rights violations.

The government has not acted on United Nations recommendations to grant migrant workers religious freedom. The International Labour Organisation – which the Maldives has just joined – told Forum 18 that “although freedom of religion may not exist in Maldives, migrant workers can count on ILO protection when it comes to rights at work and working conditions.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph


Two key figures in Malatya murder trial again fail to show despite court orders.

MALATYA, Turkey, July 21 (Compass Direct News) – Under the pretext of recovering from medical treatment he received earlier this month, a key suspect in the murders of three Christians in southeast Turkey dodged court for the second time, further stalling the legal process, prosecuting attorneys said.

Journalist Varol Bulent Aral, one of the suspected “middlemen” who allegedly incited five young men to brutally murder Turkish Christians Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel and German Christian Tilmann Geske at the Zirve Publishing Co. in Malatya two years ago, again failed to show at a hearing on Friday (July 17).

The three Christians were bound and tortured before they were murdered on April 18, 2007 at the Christian publishing house, where they worked. Suspects Salih Guler, Cuma Ozdemir, Hamit Ceker, Abuzer Yildirim and alleged ring-leader Emre Gunaydin were caught trying to escape from the scene of the crime.

Aral was admitted for mental health treatment a few days after the last hearing in June and was released from the Adiyaman penitentiary hospital on July 8. The gendarmerie, however, failed to produce him in court on Friday (July 17) claiming that he was recovering from treatment.

Prosecuting attorneys pointed out that the reason the gendarmerie did not bring him to the June hearing from the penitentiary in Adana, nearly 300 kilometers (186 miles) from Malatya, was due to lack of funds – yet the gendarmerie seemed to have no trouble finding funds to take him for treatment in Adiyaman, which is the same distance from Adana as is Malatya.

“Last time [in June] they said they couldn’t bring him because of insufficient funds,” said prosecuting lawyer Erdal Dogan. “This is unacceptable… now in the same way they make excuses, saying they took him to the hospital. It seems they are mocking us, especially since previous health reports said that he was in good health.”

Prosecuting attorneys also pointed out that it was suspicious that Aral was admitted to the hospital only days after a court order that he appear at the July 17 hearing.

“It seems to us that they are trying to silence him by making him evade court,” said prosecuting attorney Dogan of the “deep state” officials that he and his colleagues believe masterminded the murders of the three Christians. “I truly hope that is not the case.”

Charged with high-security cases, the gendarmerie are holding Aral, but some believe the gendarmerie and its intelligence services are connected with Turkey’s “deep state.”

In the last year, nearly 150 people have been arrested in Turkey under suspicion of being connected to a cabal of retired generals and politicians called Ergenekon, accused of trying to overthrow Turkey’s Islamic-leaning but secular government. Some key figures of the Ergenekon case are believed to be behind the Malatya slayings and the murders of Italian Catholic priest Andrea Santoro, killed in the Black Sea coastal town of Trabzon in February 2006, and Armenian Christian editor Hrant Dink, who was shot in front of the weekly Agos three months before the slaughter in Malatya.

The Malatya and Ergenekon prosecutors, however, are still researching links between the murders and have yet to try them jointly.

Aral has been arrested in conjunction with both cases. In a previous statement, he had complained that retired Gen. Veli Kucuk, who has also been arrested in connection to Ergenekon, had threatened him about testifying. Aral testified to the Ergenekon case state judges privately in May, but the content of his testimony has not been publicized.

Judges have found the phone numbers of ultranationalist lawyer Kemal Kerincsiz and Sevgi Erenerol, spokesperson for the Turkish Orthodox Church – a Turkish nationalist denomination – in Aral’s personal phone book. Both figures are accused of playing leading roles in Ergenekon and spearheaded prosecution of Christians Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal for speaking to people about their faith.

While in prison, alleged ring-leader Gunaydin testified to the state prosecutor that Aral had contacted him and instructed him to carry out the murders. Gunaydin had also testified that Huseyin Yelki, who worked as a volunteer at the Zirve office, had planned details of the crime with him.

Yelki is still obligated to appear at every court hearing and continues to be a suspected middleman. Thus far, however, his testimony has yielded no clear indication of his role.

Burcu Polat, Gunaydin’s girlfriend, also failed to appear in court on Friday, telling police that she was not ready because she is a student in Balikesir, in northwest Turkey. The prosecution noted in court that universities are not in session and requested that the court find her guilty of not fulfilling her duty to appear in court.

The court again has ordered Aral and Polat to appear in court at the next hearing on Aug. 21.

Report from Compass Direct News 


Christian woman run out of home – and beaten – while another is prohibited from leaving.

KHARTOUM, Sudan, April 13 (Compass Direct News) – When Halima Bubkier of Sinar town converted from Islam to Christianity last year, initially her husband accepted it without qualms.

“After watching the ‘Jesus Film,’ I felt I needed a change in my hopeless and meaningless life,” the 35-year-old mother of three told Compass. “I lived a life of alcoholism and lacked self control, hence tried Christianity and it worked well for me. I shared this experience with my husband, and he was quite positive about it and allowed me to attend church services.”

News of her conversion spread quickly, she said, and last Sept. 14 she came face to face with Islamic hardliners who felt her conversion to Christianity was an act of betrayal. A few weeks later, during the daily fasts and nightly feasts of Ramadan in Sinar, near Khartoum, the Islamists blocked her husband from the communal meals because of her change in faith.

“My husband was totally rejected by his colleagues,” she said. “They even refused to eat the food that I had cooked for him, saying that Muslims could not eat food cooked by infidels.”

Bubkier said she never expected her change in faith would lead to the ordeal that followed.

“He was so angry that he threw an armchair at me and injured my back,” she said. “As if this was not enough, he took out all his belongings from the house then set the house on fire. After I lost all my belongings, he then chased me away.”

She decided to run for refuge to her older brother, Nur Bubkier – who, having been informed of her conversion, responded by thoroughly beating her and trying to knife her.

Two Christians from the Sudanese Church of Christ, Maria Mohamud and a church deacon, managed to rescue her from the violence, but Halima Bubkier was jailed for three days at a police station, she said, on the false charge of “disrespecting Islam.” During that time Mohamud took care of her 2-year-old baby.

After three days in jail, she was waiting to appear before a judge.

“Before my case was heard, a Coptic priest [identified only as Sheed] knew of my case and talked with a police officer, privately telling him that according to the law, no one is supposed to be jailed because of religion,” Bubkier told Compass. “I was then freed.”

Bubkier left her two children, ages 6 and 8, behind with her husband, who is said to have married another woman. She said that although her main concern is the safety of her children, at least she is in hiding and her husband does not know her whereabouts.

“I expected my husband to appreciate my positive change, but instead he responded negatively,” Bubkier said. “Indeed there is something wrong with Islam where good is rewarded with evil. But I feel normal. Now I have a better life to live for. I was lost and in darkness. Let God forgive all those who have wronged me. I know I cannot go back.”


Home Prison

In Sahafa, five kilometers (three miles) south of Khartoum, another woman who left Islam is under a kind of house arrest by her family members for converting to Christianity.

Senah Abdulfatah Altyab was formerly a student of laboratory science at Sudan University of Technology, but today she is out of touch with the outside world. Her education came to an end after a film about Christ led to her conversion.

A close friend of Altyab, Ebtehaj Alsanosi Altejani Mostafh, said Altyab’s family closely monitors her.

“She cannot receive calls,” Mostafh said. “Her brother forbids her from moving outside the homestead or even attending [St. Peter and Paul Catholic] church” in Amarat, Khartoum.

Last Christmas, Mostafh said, she met Altyab near a public market during an Islamic celebration day, prayed with her and advised her that she should present her case to a commission dedicated to guarding the rights of non-Muslims. The Commission for the Rights of Non-Muslims in the National Capital, created by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005 following Sudan’s long civil war, was designed to advise courts on how to fairly apply sharia (Islamic law) to non-Muslims.

Made up of representatives from Muslim, Christian and traditional religious groups, the commission “made little headway in changing official government policy towards non-Muslims in Khartoum,” according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2008 International Religious Freedom Report, though it did obtain release or leniency for some non-Muslims accused of violating sharia.

Altyab said she feels the commission would do little for her case because most of its members are radical Muslims. Moreover, she said her uncle, Yusuf Alkoda, is a radical Muslim and will make her life more difficult.

“I find life very difficult,” Altyab said. “I feel lonely and isolated. How long will I have to live in this state? Life without education is miserable.”

Sudan’s 2005 Interim National Constitution provides for freedom of religion throughout the entire country, but Altyab said that stipulation is brazenly flouted. The constitution enshrines sharia as a key source of legislation in northern Sudan.

The 29-year-old Mostafh, for her part, said she converted from Islam to Christianity in 2005 and as a result was immediately fired from her job. She later obtained another job. A member of All Saints Cathedral Church in Khartoum, she told Compass that since her conversion, she has suffered total isolation from her Muslim friends. During communal celebrations, she said, she is looked down upon and seen as a lady lost and destined for hell.

“Life is very difficult for me for the last four years, since joining Christianity,” she said. “I have been living all alone in the rental house here at the Evangelical Presbyterian Church-Borri, which is something unusual for a Muslim lady who is unmarried. My former friends are saying that there must be something wrong with me.”

Her immediate family lives in Saudi Arabia. Her only chance of seeing them, she said, is to go on the Islamic pilgrimage or hajj, and that option is now closed.

“My big challenge is how I can be accepted by my family members,” she said. “For me to go to Saudi Arabia, pilgrimage is the only opportunity, but this is not relevant for me as a Christian.”

The many instances of Christians suffering in northern Sudan go largely unreported. The president of the Sudanese Church of Christ, Barnabas Maitias, told Compass of one church member, a convert from Islam identified only as Ahmed, who received Christ in April 2007 – and quickly had his wife and children taken away.

Hard-line Muslims also planned to kill the convert, Maitias said.

“The church had to take him to another location in the Nuba Mountains, Korarak area, where he is employed as driver,” Maitias noted. “Most of the churches in Khartoum are housing Muslim converts who have no place to stay or get their daily basic needs.”

Report from Compass Direct News