2007 Report on International Religious Freedom - Maldives

Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

The 1997 Constitution designates Islam as the official state religion. The Government interprets this provision to impose a requirement that citizens be Muslims. Freedom of religion is restricted significantly. The law prohibits the practice by Maldivian citizens of any religion other than Islam. The president is the "supreme authority to propagate the tenets of Islam." Government regulations are based on Islamic law (Shari'a). Non-Muslim foreigners are allowed to practice their religion only privately. Visitors must also refrain from encouraging local citizens to practice any religion other than Islam.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report. Freedom of religion remained severely restricted.

There were some reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious belief or practice. According to many officials and interlocutors, most citizens regarded Islam as one of their society's most distinctive characteristics and believed that it promotes harmony and national identity.

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has an area of 500 square miles distributed across 1,200 coral atolls and islands, with a population of 350,000.

The population is a distinct ethnic group with historical roots in South Indian, Sinhalese, and Arab communities. The vast majority of the Muslim population practices Sunni Islam. Non-Muslim foreigners, including more than 500,000 tourists who visit annually (predominantly Europeans and Japanese) and approximately 54,000 foreign workers (mainly Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Indians, and Bangladeshis), are in general allowed to practice their religions only in private. While Muslim tourists and Muslim foreign workers are allowed to attend local mosque services, most practice Islam in private or at mosques located at the resorts where they work and live.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

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 all citizens be Muslims. Many citizens, at all levels, believe that the Constitution requires all Maldivians to be Muslim. The Constitution also stipulates that the President must be Sunni and has the "supreme authority to propagate the tenets of Islam." Chapter II of the Constitution relating to the fundamental rights and duties of citizens does not provide for the right to freedom of religion or belief. Furthermore, the Constitution precludes non-Muslims from voting, obtaining citizenship, and holding public positions.

The "Law on the Protection of the Religious Unity" states that both the Government and the people must protect religious unity. Any statement or action contrary to this law is subject to criminal penalty; if found guilty, sentences range from a fine to imprisonment.

Non-Muslim foreign residents are allowed to practice their religions only if they do so privately and do not encourage local citizens to participate.

The Government follows civil law based on Shari'a. Civil law is subordinate to Shari'a; in the event a situation is not covered by civil law, as well as in certain cases such as divorce and adultery, Shari'a is applied.

Foreigners were not allowed to import any items deemed "contrary to Islam," including alcohol, pork products, or idols for worship. Alcoholic beverages were available to tourists on resort islands, but it remains against the law to offer alcohol to a local citizen.

Muslim holy days were generally national holidays.

Mosques were not required to register with the Government. The Government maintained and funded most mosques.

The primary responsibility of imams was to present Friday sermons. They used a set of government-approved sermons on a variety of topics and were not legally empowered to write sermons independently. No one, not even an imam, may publicly discuss Islam unless invited to do so by the Government. According to government officials, this rule was in place to maintain a moderate Islamic environment rather than a fundamentalist one.

Men who wish to act as imams must sit for public exams and present their scores and credentials to the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, chaired by the Chief Justice. The Supreme Council is empowered to certify imams. However, if the Supreme Council denies certification, the petitioner can appeal to the Board of Education.

Islamic instruction was a mandatory part of the school curriculum, and the Government funded the salaries of instructors of Islam. While Islamic instruction was only one component of the curriculum used in the majority of schools, there was one school which used Arabic as its medium of instruction and focused primarily on Islam. Many people who sought further religious education obtained it in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, or other Islamic countries. Schools offered religious education for women; however, there were no female imams.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom stated repeatedly that Maldivians are born Muslim. The Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs was mandated to provide guidance on religious matters, including centrally drafting sermons. The Government set standards for imams to ensure they have adequate theological qualifications and to prevent fundamentalism from gaining ground.

There were no places of worship for adherents of other religious groups. The Government prohibited the importation of icons and religious statues, but it generally permitted the importation of religious literature, such as Bibles, for personal use. The sale of religious items, such as Christmas cards, was restricted to the resort islands patronized by foreign tourists.

In March 2007 the press reported that some Maldivian workers employed by the Four Seasons Resort Island objected to having to carry out construction on two 10-meter tall Buddha statues. Requested by a visiting British business mogul, the statues were on display for his weekend birthday celebration. The resort's management insisted the Maldivian construction workers build the statues, which the employees said contravened local laws and customs. The employees built the statues, which remained on display for the duration of the visitor's trip.

On October 7, 2006, police cordoned off a locally-built mosque on Himandhoo Island, citing its existence as a "violation of religious harmony." Islanders told the media that the existing government-built mosque was constructed over a cemetery, so they refused to worship there and built their own mosque. The police transferred Qur'ans and sacred materials to the island's administrative office for safe-keeping, then destroyed the locally-built mosque.

The press reported that on October 11, 2006, in Himandhoo, police used undue force in arresting nine persons, including a 16 year-old, for violating a law requiring uniformity of religion. The group was worshipping at a site on the beach after the closure of their locally-built mosque and objected to police video-recording their prayers. A confrontation ensued. Police reportedly hit and kicked several persons and used pepper spray against them. In November 2006 reportedly most Himandhoo residents continued to boycott the government-built mosque.

Parents must raise their children to be Muslim in accordance with the law. Foreigners can raise their children to follow any religion as long as they practice privately in their homes or hotel rooms and do not try to include local citizens in their worship.

The Government prohibited non-Muslim clergy and missionaries from proselytizing or conducting public worship services. Islamic proselytizing was also illegal unless a government representative was present. Conversion by a Muslim to another faith is a violation of Shari'a and may result in punishment, including the loss of the convert's citizenship. There were no known cases of the Government discovering converts and rescinding citizenship as a result of conversion. In the past, would-be converts were detained and counseled to dissuade them from converting.

According to the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief's February 2007 report: "The Special Rapporteur received anecdotal information about a relatively small number of Maldivians who had converted away from Islam. She was informed that these individuals had not been able to admit to converting due to the potential social and legal ramifications. She was informed that on the rare occurrences in which Maldivians have been suspected of having converted to another religion, they have not been formally charged with apostasy, but have been detained and subjected to coercion in order to encourage or force them to reaffirm their faith in Islam. She was also informed that individuals suspected of having converted to another religion have been subjected to verbal abuse by members of the population. In theory a Maldivian residing abroad could change religion, but as a result, he or she would be denied a number of important political rights." Faith-based nongovernmental organizations were not specifically precluded by law from operating.

The law prohibits public statements that are contrary to Islam.

The Government registered only clubs and other private associations that do not contravene Islamic or civil law.

By law the president and cabinet ministers must be Sunni Muslims. Members of the People's Majlis (Parliament), the People's Special Majlis, Atoll Chiefs, and the judiciary must be Muslim; however, they are not required to be Sunni.

Under the country's Islamic practice, the testimony of two women is required to equal that of one man in matters such as adultery, finance, and inheritance. In other cases, the testimony of men and women is equal. Shari'a also governs estate inheritance, granting male heirs twice the share of female heirs. The Constitution provides that an accused person has the right to defend himself "in accordance with Shari'a." Family Law prohibits women from marrying non-Muslim foreigners but allows men to marry non-Muslim foreigners, as permitted by the Shari'a.

There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees in the country.

Forced Religious Conversion

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

Section III. Societal Abuses and Discrimination

According to the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief's February 2007 report, "members of local congregations on some of the islands do not allow foreign manual laborers to attend the mosque." She was also informed that "expatriate school pupils who choose not to study Islam are unable to pass their end of year school exams." The Government denied these allegations.

When the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief visited the Maldives' only prison, she found non-Muslim prisoners "unable to perform their prayers due to the objections of their Maldivian cellmates." There were no accommodations made for Hindu prisoners with dietary restrictions.

The Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief also reported on the issue of women wearing headscarves. She received reports that women were being pressured to cover by relatives, other citizens, self-proclaimed preachers, or newly formed political parties. Furthermore she was told that women began to cover after state-owned media reported that the 2004 tsunami was the "result of Maldivians failing to live in accordance with Islam." There was one report of a female student who was excluded from school for wearing a headscarf. However, female civil servants wore the scarf at work without any difficulty.

Most citizens regard Islam as one of their society's most distinctive characteristics and believed that it promotes harmony and national identity. The President regularly encourages all citizens to seek unity through shared religious beliefs.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government does not maintain an embassy in the country. The U.S. Ambassador in Colombo, Sri Lanka, is also accredited to the Government in Male, and Embassy Colombo officers travel frequently to the country. The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.

Released on September 14, 2007


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