U.S. Department of State Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 1999 - Maldives

Section I. Freedom of Religion

Freedom of religion is restricted significantly. The 1997 Constitution designates Islam as the official state religion and the Government interprets this provision to impose a requirement that citizens be Muslims. The practice of any religion other than Islam is prohibited by law. However, foreign residents are allowed to practice their religion if they do so privately.

It is believed that the entire indigenous population is Muslim and is overwhelmingly Sunni. Foreigners in the Maldives – more than 300,000 tourists annually (predominantly Europeans and Japanese) and about 20,000 foreign workers (predominantly Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Indian, and Bangladeshi) – are allowed to practice their religion if they do so in private and do not encourage citizens to participate.

The President must be a Sunni Muslim and under the Constitution is the "supreme authority to propagate the tenets of Islam." Cabinet ministers also are required to be Sunni Muslims. Members of the People's Majlis (Parliament) must be Muslim. The Government observes Shari'a (Islamic law).

The law can limit a citizen's right to freedom of expression in order to protect "the basic tenets of Islam." The Government has established a Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs to provide guidance on religious matters. The Government also has set standards for individuals who conduct Friday services at mosques to ensure adequate theological qualifications.

There are no places of worship for adherents of other religions. The Government prohibits the importation of icons and religious statues but generally permits the importation of religious tracts, such as Bibles, for personal use.

The Government prohibits non-Muslim clergy and missionaries from proselytizing and conducting public worship services. Conversion of a Muslim to another faith is a violation of Shari'a and may result in a loss of the convert's citizenship. In April 1998, the Government asked the Seychelles government to stop the radio broadcast of Christian programming in the local language, Dhivehi. However, the broadcasts continued through the year, and the Government did not attempt to end them in any way. In January 1999, the Government banned the animated movie "The Prince of Egypt" on the grounds that "its portrayal of the Prophet Moses was offensive to Islam, because all prophets and messengers of God are not to be animated or portrayed in any way."

Islamic instruction is a mandatory part of the school curriculum, and the Government funds the instructors in Islam.

In June 1998, the authorities detained 24 foreigners, including children, for alleged Christian proselytizing without explaining the charges against them and then expelled them from the country for life. Following the expulsion of the foreigners, police took two female citizens into custody for allegedly converting to Christianity. As many as a dozen other citizens were questioned. The women were detained from mid-June to late September 1998, during which time they received extensive counseling. No formal charges were ever brought against them, and they eventually were released to their families.

Government officials appear to be as concerned about extremes in Muslim religious beliefs as they are about other religions; the law used to expel 24 foreign nationals accused of proselytizing during June 1998 originally was enacted to restrict the influence of Islamic fundamentalists. In its 1997-98 report, Freedom House noted that the Government was concerned that the puritanical Wahabi branch of Sunni Islam was gaining adherents on the atolls.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.

There were no reports of the forced religious conversion of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section II. Societal Attitudes

Most citizens regard Islam as one of their society's most distinctive characteristics and believe that it promotes harmony and national identity.

Section III. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government does not maintain a resident Embassy in the Maldives; the U.S. Ambassador in Colombo, Sri Lanka is also accredited to the Government in Male.

Following the June 1998 expulsion of foreigners, the Ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, members of the Colombo embassy staff, and State Department officials repeatedly stressed to the Government the importance of freedom of religion as a basic human right. Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs Karl Inderfurth raised this subject with Foreign Minister Fathulla Jameel in Washington in October 1998 and later sent a copy of the new "International Religious Freedom Act" to the Foreign Minister. The Assistant Secretary again addressed this issue during his February 1999 visit to the Maldives, when he met with President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and the Foreign Minister. The U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives also met with the Foreign Minister and other senior government officials on his trips to the Maldives and reiterated U.S. concern for freedom of religion. The Ambassador and members of his staff also have met with members of the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs.

As part of an effort to demonstrate American awareness of the Muslim world and the diversity of religious beliefs within the United States, the United States Information Service arranged for a speaker to come to the Maldives in October 1998 to speak on "Islam in the United States." The speaker was well received and met with the President and senior religious leaders.

The Annual Report to Congress on International Religious Freedom describes the status of religious freedom in each foreign country, and government policies violating religious belief and practices of groups, religious denominations and individuals, and U.S. policies to promote religious freedom around the world. It is submitted in compliance with P.L. 105-292 (105th Congress) and is cited as the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.

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