Police arrest Imam of unauthorised independent prayer congregation

No additional reporting by missing journalist Ahmed Rilwan

Police have arrested a 34-year-old man for leading an unauthorised independent prayer congregation and delivering Friday prayer sermons at the Dharumavantha mosque in Malé.

The suspect was taken into custody on Tuesday night (September 30) on charges of “attempting to incite religious strife and discord,” said police, and leading prayers without authorisation from the Islamic ministry in violation of the Protection of Religious Unity Act of 1994 and regulations under the law.

“Despite being summoned to the police headquarters and being repeatedly advised and told to cease [leading the independent congregation], he gave religious sermons without permission at the Dharumavantha mosque and attempted to create religious divisions in the country,” police said in a statement yesterday.

The Criminal Court yesterday granted an extension of remand detention for five days.

“The Dharumavantha mosque is not among mosques designated in Malé for Friday prayers. And those delivering sermons and issuing fatwas there have not sought authorisation from the Islamic ministry,” police noted.

The case is under investigation by the police serious and organised crime department.

At a press conference on September 24, Home Minister Umar Naseer said efforts were underway to stop the independent congregation gathering at Dharumavantha mosque.

“Putting a stop to it is not just physically going there and stopping them sometimes with shields. Due to the nature of the [issue], we want to advise them, explain to them how it is in religion, and do all that,” Naseer told the press.

The Islamic ministry had summoned members of the separatist prayer group and conducted “one-to-one” counselling sessions, Naseer revealed.

“Unless all these efforts fail, we will not use the force of law,” Naseer said.

Religious unity

In February this year, the Malé City Council posted a notice on the Dharumavantha mosque stating that it would be temporarily shut down at the request of the Ministry of Home Affairs to stop unauthorised Friday prayers.

The prayer group has been described as “extremist” by Islamic Minister Dr Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed.

However, the independent congregation gathered for prayers the next Friday and prayed for God to destroy the government and for victory against the “irreligious” government that was attempting to “obstruct the spreading of Allah’s message”.

The Imam also prayed for God to destroy and send his wrath upon military and police officers who implement the government’s orders.

Despite the notice, the group continued to gather for prayers at the mosque and conduct Friday prayers every weekend at a time earlier than the time set by the Islamic ministry.

Local media reported last month that the Dharumavantha mosque’s Imam accused the government in a Friday prayer sermon of declaring “war” against the congregation.

A prayer was also offered against the government’s alleged efforts against the “true invitation” and for Allah to strike fear into the hearts of police and army officers who might be used stop the unauthorised congregation.

Under the religious unity regulations enacted in May 2010, permission and written approval must be sought from the Islamic ministry to preach, give sermons and issue religious edicts in the Maldives.

Scholars seeking a license to preach are required to have at least a first degree in religious studies from an institution recognised by the government.

In April, President Abdulla Yameen ratified amendments to the Religious Unity Act – which came into force mid-July – outlawing independent or unauthorised prayer congregations.

The penalty for violations of either the law or the regulations is a jail sentence of between two to five years.

former member of the Dharumavantha mosque congregation told Minivan News in February that shutting down the mosque or arresting the members of congregation would be ill-advised.

“You can’t change what people believe using force. Under [former President Maumoon Abdul] Gayoom, I was arrested and kept in solitary confinement for weeks and sometimes months for praying in separate congregations and being involved with such groups. If anything, my convictions became even stronger and my thinking more radicalised,” he said.

Under the administration of former President Mohamed Nasheed, the government’s policy in combating extremism shifted to a rehabilitation model.

In 2010, President Nasheed decided to commute the sentences of 16 people convicted for their part in a violent confrontation between the security services and a separatist prayer group in Himandhoo.

More than 50 people were arrested in October 2007 after islanders donned red motorcycle helmets and armed themselves with batons and knives to defend the Dhar al Khuir mosque.

Police had been searching for suspects in the Maldives’ first Islamist terror investigation following a bomb blast in Sultan Park that injured 12 tourists.

Questioning the success of the appeasement or conciliatory efforts, however, Shaheem – who had earlier advocated for a similar model – had labelled it a failure.


Mosques to be brought under Islamic ministry on November 1

All mosques in the country will be brought under the purview of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs on November 1, Islamic Minister Dr Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed has said.

“The ministry is working to change mosques, Imams, muezzins, workers to the ministry from November 1 onward,” Shaheem tweeted on Sunday (September 28).

Responsibility for the maintenance and management of mosques was transferred from the Islamic Ministry to local councils by the landmark Decentralisation Act of 2010.

However, in April, President Abdulla Yameen ratified amendments to the Religious Unity Act of 1994 that would bring mosques under the Islamic ministry and outlaw independent prayer congregations. The amendments came into effect in mid-July.

In April 2012, Shaheem called for mosques to be returned to the ministry’s care following the refusal of some island councils to allow scholars to preach in mosques, most recently in the island of Innamaadhoo in Raa atoll.

The Innamadhoo island council filed a complaint with the Islamic Ministry in March against Sheikh Ibrahim Shameem Adam after the NGO Salaf preacher allegedly delivered a sermon in the island’s mosque without permission from the council.

In May 2013, Sheikh Imran Abdulla and Sheikh Ilyas Hussein – senior members of the religious conservative Adhaalath Party – were obstructed from preaching in Vaikaradhoo, in Haa Dhaalu atoll, whilst the Kamadhoo island council in Baa atoll prevented Sheikh Nasrulla Ali from preaching in the island’s mosque.

In Vaikaradhoo, the Adhaalath sheikhs were provided police protection in the face of unruly opposition protesters.

“Broadening the role of mosques” was among the eleven key policy objectives unveiled by the Islamic ministry in February.


Government sends defrauded pilgrims to Mecca

The government has sent the 121 victims of the al-Fatuh Hajj and Umra group frauds on the Hajj pilgrimage under the care of the Hajj Corporation.

According to local media, the people sent today were those who had paid al-Fatuh and obtained their visas before the company pleaded bankruptcy to the Islamic Ministry explaining that it would not be able send the pilgrims to Saudi Arabia.

Haveeru reported that the government has spent MVR9 million (US$584,036) to cover the expenses of the defrauded pilgrims.

At a press conference on Friday, Islamic Minister Dr Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed said that the government was covering the expenses of the victims because the Saudi Arabian Government might reduce the quota to the Maldivians if the full quota is not fulfilled.

The 1000 pilgrims quota provided by the Saudi Arabian Government is split into two, with 500 reserved for the Hajj Corporation and the rest divided into private corporations chosen after a bidding process.


Police arrest al-Fathuh Hajj group managing director for fraud

Police have arrested the managing director of the al-Fathuh Hajj and Umra group for fraud after the company accepted payments from would-be pilgrims in excess of the quota provided by the Islamic ministry.

Musthafa Mohamed, 68, from Maafanu Excel, was taken into custody on Friday (September 12) around 6pm from his residence in Malé.

Police also searched the residence as well as the al-Fathuh office with a search warrant. The Criminal Court has since extended the remand detention of the suspect to 15 days.

The government has announced that the state Hajj Corporation will now make arrangements for the defrauded persons to travel to Saudi Arabia.

The group was provided a quota of 125 by the government, but charged a 100 additional people, most of whom reportedly paid significantly higher than the normal rate of MVR69,000 (US$4,475) under a ‘VIP package.’

The al-Fathuh company had said arrangements would be made for the additional pilgrims under a quota from a foreign country.

Last week, about 25 families protested outside the al-Fathuh office in the capital after 76 expectant pilgrims were told they would not be able to depart for Mecca as scheduled on Monday (September 15).

Police have urged persons who have made payments to the group to contact the economic crime department as soon as possible on 9790048.

Company told ministry of bankruptcy

Meanwhile, at a press conference on Friday, Islamic Minister Dr Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed revealed that the al-Fathuh group had informed the ministry that it would not be able to take the 125 pilgrims it was authorised to take to Mecca.

The 125 pilgrims were due to depart for Saudi Arabia tomorrow when the company told the ministry that it was “bankrupt”.

The ministry also discovered that the company had not made payments to the airline and the hotel, Shaheem said.

After the company requested assistance, Shaheem said the ministry arranged for an extension from the airline to make payments as the reservations would have been canceled at 12pm on Thursday (September 11).

“However, the company was unable to do it when the deadline elapsed,” Shaheem said.

Shaheem said a task force had been formed at the request of President Abdulla Yameen to make arrangements to send the 125 pilgrims to Mecca. Yameen himself will also conduct the Hajj pilgrimage later this month.

Expenses for the pilgrims in Mecca and Medina would be covered by the government’s Hajj Corporation, he said.

“Tickets have been taken for everyone who had decided to go to Hajj with the company and had obtained visas,” Shaheem said.

At a meeting with the defrauded pilgrims on Friday night at the Islamic ministry, Shaheem reportedly said that the Maldives was getting “a bad name” as a result of Hajj groups failing to make payments on time to agents in Mecca.

An agent came to the Maldives last week and told the Islamic minister that one Hajj group owed him 1.2 million Saudi riyals, Shaheem revealed.

The money had been owed for years, Shaheem said, noting that it amounts to about MVR5 million (US$324,254).

Quota not reduced

Shaheem said the government to decided to cover the expenses of the defrauded pilgrims because the Saudi Arabian government could reduce the 1,000 person quota provided to the Maldives next year if the full quota was not used.

While the Saudi government had reduced quotas for other countries by 20 percent, Shaheem noted that the Maldives quota was not lowered.

Of the 1,000 pilgrim quota afforded to the Maldives by Saudi Arabia, 500 were reserved by the government’s Hajj Corporation while the rest were divided amongst Hajj groups chosen after a bidding process.

In February, the Civil Court and the Anti-Corruption Commission ordered the Islamic ministry to halt the bidding process and revise the criteria for awarding quotas.

The government-owned corporation meanwhile charged MVR69,965 (US$4,537) per person. Performing the Hajj pilgrimage at least once in a lifetime is one of the five pillars of Islam.

Hajj Corporation Chairperson Dr Aishath Muneeza told reporters that the corporation would attempt to provide the same quality of service to the 125 pilgrims defrauded by al-Fathuh as it would to the 500 pilgrims who would perform the pilgrimage under the corporation’s care.

Muneeza revealed at Friday night’s meeting that the additional pilgrims would cost the corporation MVR9 million (US$583,658).

In a similar case of fraud involving a Hajj group, the owner of the Maleesha Hajj Group, Ismail Abdul Latheef, is currently on trial for defrauding 175 people of MVR12 million (US$778,000), after they made payments to the company in 2012.


Over 70 unable to perform pilgrimage after paying dues

Families of 76 expectant pilgrims who made payments to the al-Fatuh Hajj Group protested outside the company’s offices today after they were unable to depart for Mecca.

According to local media, the group was provided a quota of 118 by the government, but charged 76 additional people.

Online news outlet CNM reported that the group agreed to reimburse the disgruntled clients within 10 days. About 25 families reportedly gathered outside the group’s offices this afternoon.

Islamic Minister Dr Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed declared this week that Hajj groups that accepted payments from people in excess of their quotas would be disqualified next year.

Of the 800 pilgrim quota afforded to the Maldives by Saudi Arabia, 400 were reserved by the government’s Hajj Corporation while the rest were divided amongst Hajj groups chosen after a bidding process.

The government-owned corporation charged MVR69,965 (US$4,537) per person. Performing the Hajj pilgrimage at least once in a lifetime is one of the five pillars of Islam.


Archaeological team from India concludes survey in Maldives

A delegation from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) visited Maldives from August 14-20 on the invitation of the Government of Maldives to conduct a detailed study for a project to undertake restoration of ancient mosques in Maldives.

The 4-member team, led by Dr BR Mani, additional director general, visited several mosques in various islands and held meetings with the Maldivian delegations in the Ministry of Islamic Affairs and the Department of Heritage led by Minister of Islamic Affairs Dr Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed and Deputy Minister of Education and Director of Heritage Department Yumna Maumoon.

Both sides welcomed the proposal for a MoU between ASI and the heritage department, and the renovation and preservation of ancient cultural heritage in the Maldives.

The ASI delegation visit is a follow-up of the visit of Shaheem’s visit to India in April 2014, during which co-operation between India and Maldives in this area was discussed.

India had previously assisted the Maldives in restoration of several ancient mosques including Hukuru Miskiy (1988), Eid Miskiy (2006), Dharumavantha Rasgefaanu Miskiy (2004) in Male and Fenfushi Hukuru Miskiy in South Ari atoll (2001).

Six of the country’s coral stone mosques are currently being considered for UNESCO world heritage site status.


Singapore Islamic authority approve Maldives halal certificates

Singapore has become the first country to accept the Maldives’ Halal certification, the Ministry of Islamic Affair has revealed.

Local media have reported the ministry’s announcement that the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore has accepted the certification, currently used by three Maldivian fisheries firms.

“After the approval of the certificate by Singapore, the market is looking forward to an even bigger expansion,” Islamic Minister Sheikh Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed told Haveeru.

The move to award Halal certification followed the EU’s decision to refuse the extension of duty-free status to Maldivian fish imports late last year due to the Maldives’ failure to adhere to international standards regarding freedom of religion.

The EU represents the single largest export partner for the Maldives.

The government promptly formed a Fisheries Promotion Board in order to target new markets, with Felivaru Fisheries, Maldives Industrial Fisheries Company (MIFCO), Horizon Fisheries all awarded Halal certificates in April.

Deputy Minister at the Ministry of Islamic Affairs Dr Aishath Muneeza told Sun Online that the certification had been approved for three years by the Singapore authority, expressing confidence that the development would open up international markets.


Donations made from Zakat fund to children’s home, centre for persons with special needs

The Ministry of Islamic Affairs has donated MVR100,000 (US$6,485) to the children’s home in Vilimalé and MVR140,000 (US$9,079) to the centre for persons with special needs in the island of Guraidhoo in Kaafu atoll from the Zakat fund, reports newspaper Haveeru.

Zakat is the obligatory alms tax collected from the accumulated wealth of all able Muslims.

Speaking at a ceremony to hand over the donations today, Islamic Minister Dr Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed noted that this was the first time donations to the children’s home and the disability centre were made out of the Zakat fund.

The children at the Vilimalé home and persons with special needs were among the most deserving groups for financial assistance from Zakat proceeds, Shaheem reportedly said.

He added that details of expenditure would have to be submitted to the ministry.

Deputy Gender Minister Sidhatha Shareef meanwhile noted that the Islamic ministry has previously provided financial assistance to the children’s home and disability centre.

According to the local daily, MVR3.4 million (US$220,493) was collected as Zakat this year.


More than 10,000 registered poor in capital Malé

Some 10,114 people have registered as poor and eligible for Zakat in the capital Malé at the end of a registration deadline yesterday, local media reports.

According to the Islamic Ministry, more than 53,000 people will be eligible for Zakat in 2014 – an obligatory alms tax collected from the accumulated wealth of all able Muslims.

The number of registered poor rose to 53,200 last year from 50,619 in 2012 – a 4.9 percent increase.

The ministry has said that MVR47 million (US$3 million) was collected last year as Zakat and out of this approximately MVR21.3 million (US$1.3 million) will be distributed to the poor – each person is expected to receive MVR400 (US$26).