Legal restrictions on freedom of religion in the Maldivian constitution and laws are generally enforced in practice by the government, observed a US State Department ‘July-December 2010 International Freedom of Religion Report’ made public yesterday.
The new constitution enacted in 2008 designates Islam as the official state religion and states that “a non-Muslim may not become a citizen of the Maldives.”
“There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom by the government during the reporting period. Freedom of religion remained severely restricted,” the report found. “The government required that all citizens be Muslims, and government regulations were based on Sharia (Islamic law).”
However it added that “[t]here were no reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice.”
On constitutional restrictions to freedom of religion and conscience, the report noted that religion was “excluded from a list of attributes for which people should not be discriminated against.”
Meanwhile under the Protection of Religious Unity Act of 1994, any statement or action contrary to the law could be punished either by a fine or imprisonment.
Following the 2008 presidential election, the report noted, President Mohamed Nasheed replaced the former Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs with the current Ministry of Islamic Affairs and appointed the head of the religious conservative Adhaalath party as its minister.
“Minivan News reported that every Friday prayer since President Nasheed’s inauguration had been led by a religious figure from the Adhaalath Party,” the report noted. “It stated that in this way, Islam was being controlled by one group at the expense of other prominent scholars. The same report observed that a new ministry newspaper published every Friday, called Road to Steadfastness, printed only articles written by Adaalath Party members. According to government officials, the purpose was to maintain a moderate Islamic environment rather than an extremist one.”
The report also referred to the ministry’s ban on religion groups holding independent or separate Friday prayer congregations earlier than the fixed time of 12:35pm: “The ministry justified the ban, stating that separate prayer groups violated the Protection of Religious Unity Act that was intended to promote religious homogeneity.”
Although apostasy or conversion by a Maldivian Muslim to another religion was interpreted as a Shariah law violation, “there were no known cases of the government discovering converts and rescinding citizenship as a result of conversion.”
“During previous reporting periods, would-be converts were detained and counseled to dissuade them from converting; however, according to press reports, a handful of persons in the country’s blogging community reportedly identified themselves as atheist or Christian,” the report stated.
Referring to reporting by Forum 18, a Norwegian human rights organisation that promotes freedom of religion, the State Department report noted that “many persons, especially secular individuals and non-Muslims, voiced their concern over the restrictions on religion in anonymous weblogs. The organization stated fear of social ostracism and government punishment prevented this concern from being openly expressed.”
On social pressure restricting religious freedom, the report found that “there has not been a pattern of discrimination, intolerance or harassment.”
The report however referred to the suicide of Ismail Mohamed Didi, an air traffic controller who was found hanged from the control tower of Male International Airport on July 11, 2010.
“An e-mail written by Ismail, released shortly after his death, revealed that he had been seeking asylum abroad for fear of persecution over his lack of religious belief,” it stated. “Ismail had admitted he was an atheist to his work colleagues and at the time of his death, he was the subject of an internal investigation for professed apostasy. He subsequently had been harassed at work and received anonymous phone calls threatening violence if he did not repent.”
Meanwhile a report by United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, published in February 2011, expressed concern to the government that a number of provisions in the regulations on protection of religious unity drafted in May 2010 “may seriously hamper several human rights, including freedom of religion or belief and freedom of opinion and expression.”
The Special Rapporteurs inquired after “steps have been taken by the Government to address the situation of members of religious minorities, dissenting believers and journalists, especially in order to guarantee their rights to freedom of religion or belief and to freedom of opinion and expression.”
However the Special Rapporteur had not received a response from the government as of February this year.
“The Special Rapporteur regrets that he has so far not received a reply from the Maldives Government concerning the above mentioned allegations,” the report stated. “He would like to appeal to the Government to ensure the right to freedom of religion or belief in accordance with article 18 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”
Article 18 of the UDHR guarantees “freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching”.
The Special Rapporteur warned that “vague terms such as ‘religious unity’ or ‘disagreement’ (article 2 of the draft Regulations) makes the interpretation of the draft Regulations prone to abuse which may be detrimental for members of religious minorities and dissenting believers.”
Moreover, a number of provisions would conflict with the Maldives’ obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In the 2006 country report, the previous Special Rapporteur had noted that “the concept of national unity appears to have become inextricably linked to the concept of religious unity, and even religious homogeny, in the minds of the population.”
In addition, the 2006 report observed that “religion has been used as a tool to discredit political opponents and that political opponents have publicly accused each other of being either Christians or Islamic extremists, both of which have proved to be damaging accusations in a country in which religious unity is so highly regarded.”
The Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression meanwhile found in 2009 “that people are prevented both by legislative provisions and through social pressure from expressing their views about issues relevant to religion or belief and as a result exercise self-censorship.”
“Against this background, the Special Rapporteur would urge the Maldives
Government to reconsider the draft Regulations, specifically taking into account the international human rights standards on freedom of religion or belief and freedom of opinion and expression,” the report concluded.
“To this end, he calls upon the Maldives Government to allow for further debate and revision of the draft Regulations due to concerns that their implementation could have a significant negative impact on human rights in the country.”