Published: 00:00 GMT Standard Time - Monday 11 January 2010
Maldives: Legislators seek to increase pressure on non-Muslims
|“In the midst of the furore over the Swiss referendum to ban the building of any new minarets, a harshly restrictive piece of legislation to ban all non-Muslim places of worship was passing through the Maldivian parliament,” says Dr Patrick Sookhdeo, International Director of Barnabas Aid. “How tragic it is that this serious development should go virtually unreported. It was the same in 2008 when the Maldives introduced a new constitution that prevents non-Muslims from becoming Maldivian citizens, and no one noticed or cared.”|
The People’s Majlis (Parliament) of the Maldives have been debating a bill to ban non-Muslim places of worship. According to Maldivian sources the bill, proposed by Ibrahim Muttalib MP, would make it illegal to build non-Muslim places of worship or to practise non-Muslim faiths in public, although foreigners would be allowed to worship in the privacy of their homes. Punishment would be a jail term of three to five years or a fine of between US$2,800 and US$4,700.
When presenting the bill, Muttalib said that its purpose was to maintain Islamic principles in the country and to prevent the spread of non-Muslim faiths. He also said that the government had received enquiries about establishing places of worship and there was nothing yet in the law or constitution to prevent this. He mentioned too the phenomenon of “wedding tourism” and said that this would “indirectly set up churches in this country”.
Muttalib has explained that he proposed the bill because at present there is no legal barrier to the establishing of non-Muslim places of worship. He referred to Article 19 of the 2008 Maldivian constitution, which states that “No control or restraint may be exercised against any person unless it is expressly authorised by law.” His argument was that a law was therefore needed explicitly prohibiting non-Muslim places of worship.
Muttalib’s assumption that having non-Muslim places of worship would be unacceptable reflects the strongly Islamic nature of Maldivian society. His concern is how to safeguard against this happening.
The bill has now been sent to committee.
President Mohamed Nasheed has said that, before ratifying the bill, he will seek advice from Islamic religious scholars about what sharia (Islamic law) teaches on allowing non-Muslims to worship in an Islamic society.
According to sharia, Jews and Christians are allowed to keep their existing places of worship in an Islamic state but not to build new ones. “Pagans”, such as Hindus, are not even allowed to keep existing places of worship.
Debate in the Majlis
Demographics of the Maldives
The Maldives were populated many centuries ago, mainly by migrants from Sri Lanka. Originally they followed a Sri Lankan type of Buddhism, but they were converted to Sunni Islam in 1153 by the order of their ruler.
There are a small number of Maldivian Christians. A severe crackdown in 1998 resulted in some being imprisoned and tortured. They continue to be carefully watched, as well as discriminated against and ostracised.
There are also around 80,000 migrant workers, mainly from South Asia, who are Muslims, Buddhists, Christians and Hindus. Lack of privacy in their accommodation means that legal permission for non-Muslims to worship “in private homes” is all but meaningless for these migrant workers.
According to Maldivian news agencies, the debate in the Majlis does not centre on whether or not non-Muslims should be allowed places of worship in the Maldives; it is taken for granted that they should not.
Sheikh Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed, the Minister of State for Islamic Affairs, has commented that non-Muslim places of worship are necessary only in countries where there is religious diversity. This, he said, did not apply in the Maldives, which he claimed is 100% Muslim and whose constitution does not permit Maldivians to follow a non-Islamic faith. He also said that there is no reason for non-Muslim worship places to be built for foreigners.
The background to the Sheikh’s comments is the 2008 constitution, a document that introduced many democratic changes but contained no guarantee of freedom of conscience or religion. Furthermore, Article 9d stated that “a non-Muslim may not become a citizen of the Maldives”. It is not yet clear how this will be interpreted, but the most alarming scenario is that non-Muslims could be stripped of their existing Maldivian citizenship, leaving them without any protection from the law, vulnerable to imprisonment without trial or any other kind of abuse.
Several MPs have argued that the proposed new law is too narrow in scope and more comprehensive legislation is needed to protect Islam. Some want, for example, to increase the penalties to ten years in prison, with foreign violators to be deported and not allowed back for ten years.
Some have called for the bill to ban non-Muslim worship even in private homes, on the basis that this conflicts with Article 10 of the Constitution. Article 10 states that Islam shall be the basis of all laws in the Maldives and that no laws contrary to any tenet of Islam shall be enacted. Ahmed Abdullah MP warned about the repercussions of allowing non-Muslim foreigners to worship in private. He said that, given it was impossible to check and monitor what was happening, how could anyone be sure that Maldivians did not join in such worship?
Other MPs have argued that Maldivians travelling abroad have freedom to practise Islam, so non-Muslim foreigners should also be able to worship in private while in the Maldives.
One MP pointed out that Muhammad, the founder of Islam, had allowed Jews and Christians to practise their faiths in Medina, and that therefore this should be allowed in the Maldives so long as it did not adversely affect Maldivian society. Ibrahim Muttalib rejects this argument, quoting Islamic scholars who say that the example of Medina was superseded by later commands of Muhammad.
Alhan Fahmy MP said that the bill was unnecessary, as traditional and cultural norms were more powerful than laws, but that he would still vote for it to ensure that in the future there would be no possibility of advocating freedom of religion. In the same vein, Nazam Rashid MP said that the bill was important because human rights organisations were trying to impose freedom of religion on the Maldives.
- Pray that the advice sought from religious scholars will encourage President Nasheed not to ratify the bill.
- Pray that those who call for non-Muslims in the Maldives to be granted the freedoms that Muslim Maldivians enjoy abroad will be able to influence public opinion and the opinion of legislators towards greater religious liberty.
- Pray that Maldivian Christians may not be discouraged but may be strengthened in their faith, as they continue to live for Jesus despite many pressures and the knowledge that they are constantly watched. Pray also for the many non-Muslim migrant workers of various faiths that they will be given real freedom of worship.