Amendments to religious unity law brings mosques under Islamic Ministry, outlaws independent congregations

A first amendment to the Protection of Religious Unity Act of 1994 bringing mosques under the Ministry of Islamic Affairs and outlawing independent prayer congregations was ratified by President Abdulla Yameen yesterday.

The amendments (Dhivehi) – passed with 33 votes in favour and 10 abstentions at the sitting of parliament on March 31 –  brings all mosques and prayer houses in inhabited islands back under the purview of the Islamic Ministry.

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

In April 2012, Islamic Minister Dr Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed 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 last month against Sheikh Ibrahim Shameem Adam after the NGO Salaf preacher allegedly delivered a sermon in the island’s mosque without permission from the council.

Shameem was also prevented from delivering a sermon by the Omadhoo island council in December last year on the grounds that it might “disrupt the stability and social harmony of the island”.

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.

Other provisions

The amendments ratified today also prohibit “sowing religious discord” in the community and outlaws independent or unauthorised prayer congregations.

Friday prayers must be conducted in mosques designated by the Islamic ministry while the Friday sermon must be delivered at a time determined by the ministry.

Religious sermons delivered at mosques must meanwhile adhere to rules set by the government.

In February this year, the Malé City Council shut down the Dharumavantha mosque at the request of the Islamic Ministry to stop unauthorised Friday prayers by a group described as “extremist” by Islamic Minister Shaheem.

Among other offences specified in the amendments were the construction of places of worship for other religions, the sale, possession, or advertisement of expressions or slogans of other religions and the importation, display, advertisement and sale of books of other religions.

Moreover, seeking financial assistance from foreigners to propagate other religions is prohibited while permission must be sought in writing from the Islamic Ministry before accepting a salary, funds, or a gift from a foreign party for conducting religious activities in the country.

Similar provisions were included in the religious unity regulations enforced in September 2011 to crack down on extremist and unlicensed preaching of Islam in the country.

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

The new amendments also stipulate that permission must be sought in writing from the Islamic Ministry for preaching or delivering sermons, offering religious advice or publishing books concerning religion.

Other amendments brought to the religious unity law include a provision requiring Islam to be taught as a compulsory subject in all public and private schools from grade one to 12.

Additionally, the Education Ministry and other relevant state institutions must revise the Islamic curriculum to “instil love of religion among students” and discourage involvement in sectarian disputes.

Islam teachers will also be required to possess qualifications from Islamic universities or centres accepted by the Maldives Qualification Authority while expatriate teachers must belong to the Sunni sect.

In February, the government introduced Arabic language as an optional subject for grades one through 12.

The new amendments will come into force three months after ratification.

The amendment bill was submitted in June 2010 by the late Dr Afrasheem Ali, a moderate religious scholar and Progressive Party of Maldives MP who was was brutally murdered in October 2012.

The legislation was first put to a vote in October 2012 following review by parliament’s social affairs committee. The bill was however rejected and returned to committee after only 16 MPs out of 66 in attendance voted in favour.


Auditor General’s office requests Rf 7 million increase in budget

The Auditor General’s office has requested an additional Rf 7 million (US$450,000) from the Finance Ministry to revise the organisation, reports Haveeru.

Parliament’s Finance Committee asked the ministry to provide Rf 2 million to revise the structure of the auditor general’s office and lay off 22 employees, Rf 1.4 million for audit trips, and Rf 730,000 for consultancy services.

An additional Rf 750,000 was requested for training, and Rf 1.4 million for legally-licensed software.


Alcohol licenses to be issued to hotels on inhabited islands

Hotels with more than 100 beds will be allowed to sell alcohol on inhabited islands – such as Male’ – according to new regulations approved by the Ministry of Trade and Economic Development.

In addition to tourist hotels, bars at the airport departure terminal will be authorised to sell alcohol. Diplomats at the ambassador level will also be eligible for liquor permits.

The illegal imports law 4/75 authorises the ministry to formulate such regulations. The new law applies to both alcohol and pork products, and will go into effect from 1 March.

The new regulations for liquor licenses were proposed in November 2009, but were withdrawn shortly afterwards due to public outcry and opposition from the Islamic Ministry.

State Minister of Trade Adhil Saleem said a hotel seeking to acquire a liquor license under the new regulations would be required to follow the government’s “strict rules” on the sale of alcohol.

Hotels will not be allowed to have a bar that is visible from the outside, and it must only serve foreigners. Furthermore, the alcohol can only be sold and consumed in designated areas of the hotel.

Maldivians cannot be employed at the bar and all employees of the bar must be registered with the economic development ministry and undergo a police check. Security cameras must be installed in both the serving area and storerooms, and back-up recordings kept.

Moreover, an inventory of the alcohol in storage and daily sales must be maintained and made available to police on request.

Saleem believes a side effect of the new license regulations will be “the proper disposal of empty liquor bottles”.

“Now, it’s not an issue if you find an empty bottle of liquor on the streets of inhabited islands,” he said, suggesting that with the new licenses establishments must dispose of bottles properly.

Sim Mohamed from the Maldives Association of Tourism Industry (MATI) said the changes in alcohol licensing would have little effect on the tourism industry, “as most people travelling to Malé do so for business, or stay only for the day.”

Mauroof Zakir, spokesperson for a coalition of NGOs against the sale of alcohol on inhabited islands said the issue is intrinsically a serious one.

“Maybe the government thinks it’s only a few people with beards who want to stop this,” he said. “The government is doing what it likes without considering what the people might want.”

He said the Islamic Foundation and the coalition of NGOs “will not support this and will take action against it, within the law.”

Regulations at a glance:

a) alcohol and pork cannot be served outside the bar area, for instance from mini-bars in hotel rooms

b) Maldivians cannot be employed at the bar, while all employees must be registered at the ministry after a police clearance

c) the bar should not be visible from outside and should be located at a place that is not easily visible to those who visit the hotel

d) the hotel should have a separate warehouse to store pork and liquor items and it should have proper security

e) a daily inventory must be kept, including the amount in storage and the amount served

f) the inventory should be made available to police upon request

g) only expatriates registered at the ministry after a police clearance should be allowed to store and remove items from the warehouse

h) there must be a CCTV at the warehouse

i) only those with foreign passports can be served at the bar and Maldivians with foreign passports cannot be served

j) the security guard at the bar must check passports before entry

k) the hotel must establish a private security system approved by police

l) it will be illegal to remove pork and liquor items from the bar or selling it outside the hotel

m) inebriated customers should not be served before they regain sobriety nor should they be allowed to leave the hotel

n) the hotel must establish a breath-testing mechanism approved by police for patrons before they leave the bar

o) cameras must be installed if police request it and CCTV camera footage must be kept for a month


New system for issuing licenses

Driving licenses are to only be issued after a probationary period when new regulation comes into effect in January.

Under the new Land and Transport Act, people applying for a license will at first receive a temporary license. A full license would only be awarded after a probation period.

Mahdhi Imad, chairman of the transports authority said that the new regulation will give a Maldives a similar system to other countries.