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20 February 2013

The Maldives: no paradise for religious freedom

The Republic of the Maldives is best known as a luxury tourist destination with beautiful sandy beaches. A collection of 1,190 coral reef islands in the Indian Ocean, the Maldives lies to the south west of Sri Lanka. Only 200 islands are inhabited, with approximately one third of the 300,000 citizens and 65,000 migrant workers living in the crowded capital of Male.

But behind the image of 'the sunny side of life', this popular holiday destination denies religious freedom to its citizens and migrant workers. The Maldives is one of only a few countries in the world where only one faith can be practiced publicly, and the only nation which legally prescribes and enforces homogeneity in religion. Maldivians have to practise not only Islam, but a specific government version of Sunni Islam. The government's Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs writes the Friday sermon delivered at mosques by approved Imams, and prohibits discussion of religion without their explicit permission. Even prayer rituals are controlled. This lack of religious freedom means that the Maldives remains at number six on Open Doors UK's World Watch List 2013, making it one of the countries where faith costs the most.

In the Maldives churches are banned, evangelism is forbidden and strict state censorship exists. Any non-approved religious materials are banned, including holy books, CDs, DVDs and pictures. The internet, media and printed material are also censored, and migrants' luggage searched for prohibited items. A migrant worker told Forum 18 "We are not allowed to carry Bibles or any religious items. The reason is because the authorities feel threatened. They try to confiscate any such thing they discover." Control and intimidation exists even outside the country, with bookshop owners in India and Sri Lanka threatened for trying to sell religious literature in the Maldivian national language of Dhivehi.

Forum 18 reports that the Maldivian government avoids any commitment to religious freedom despite ratifying many international human rights standards. This is because they refer first to their constitution, which states that all Maldivian citizens are Muslims.Being Muslim is seen as inseparable from being a Maldivian, and preserving and protecting the state religion is officially the responsibility of every citizen (in Article 36 of the 2008 Constitution). The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Asma Jahangir, called on the government in February 2007 to change the law, allowing all residents to choose their own religion or belief. This has not happened.

Maldivians suspected of converting from Islam have been imprisoned, labelled as 'traitors' and 'immature' and accused of being influenced by 'foreign forces'. They are released only when they sign a declaration that they believe in Islam, but are still regarded with suspicion, with some losing their jobs. Many non-Muslims are forced to perform Muslim prayer rituals to avoid being suspected, and police arrested over 70 people during Ramadan in 2008 for not fasting.

Foreign workers are legally allowed to practice their faith, but only when Maldivians are not present. This often means they are never allowed to express their beliefs, as many work in crowded conditions and domestic servants have little privacy. Migrants fear police raids if they meet together, and many do not sing hymns or pray aloud even on their own for fear of being noticed.

A migrant worker was charged with child molestation and deported in August 2008, but his colleagues deny the allegations and insist that he was targeted for hosting a religious meeting. Alliance member Release International reported that in late 2011 an Indian Christian teacher, Shijo Kokkattu, was detained for fortnight after a Bible was found in his house in Raa Atoll during a police raid. He was charged with preaching Christianity and deported. It was also reported this month that a Bangladeshi Christian, Jathish Biswas, faced 23 days in jail and deportation following custom officials finding him with 11 books on Christianity in the local Dhivehi language (Release International, page 17).

Please pray:

  • for strength, courage and protection for Maldivian Christians, and opportunities to meet together in safety
  • that young Maldivians being educated outside the islands have the opportunity to hear the gospel
  • for Maldivian national identity to be seen as separate from Islamic belief
  • for Maldivian leaders to commit to religious freedom and change the laws which deny this to citizens and migrants.

   Photo credit: KingKurt via Creative Commons.