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.
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.
A 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.