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Maldives - Religion

Islam is the official religion, all citizens must be Muslims, and the practice of a faith other than Islam is forbidden. Originally Buddhists, Maldivians were converted to Sunni Islam in the mid-12th century. For over eight centuries, the Maldives has existed as a Muslim nation, and its national identity is intertwined with that of Islam. The Government is committed to preserving that identity and promoting the true Islamic values of respect and tolerance. Islam is the official religion of the entire population.

The US government estimates the total population at 394,000 (July 2013 estimate). All citizens are required to be Muslim and the majority of the population practices Sunni Islam. Non-Muslim foreigners, including an estimated 800,000 tourists who visit annually and 100,000 foreign workers (mainly Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, Indians, and Pakistanis), may practice their religions only in private. Religious restrictions are generally not enforced for tourists on “uninhabited” resort islands. Most Muslim tourists and Muslim foreign workers practice Islam in private or at mosques located at the resorts where they work and live.

The constitution and other laws and policies restrict religious freedom and, in practice, the government enforced these restrictions. Restrictions were not enforced for foreign tourists on “uninhabited” resort islands. The government’s respect for religious freedom declined during the year. The law prohibits citizens’ practice of any religion other than Sunni Islam and requires the government to exert control over all religious matters, including the practice of Islam. The authorities did not recognize or respect freedom of religion and it remained severely restricted. There were reports of governmental detention, religious intolerance, and restriction of religious freedom. Governmental pressure to conform to a stricter interpretation of Islamic practice increased, particularly in the lead-up to presidential elections. The government used religious grounds to further constrain the space of free expression in the media. Some Muslims expressed concern about increasing “Islamic radicalism,” though advocates of religious freedom generally believed the public was becoming more aware of the issue.

There were reports of societal abuses and discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice, including incidents against Maldivians who did not want to conform to a strict, conservative interpretation of Islam. There was an increasing trend among political leaders to call for greater limits on religious groups and activities, and impose criminal punishments in accordance with Islamic law. The use of religion in political rhetoric increased substantially, which led to derogatory statements about Christianity and Judaism and harassment of citizens calling for a more tolerant interpretation of Islam. Anti-Semitic rhetoric among conservative parties continued.

Several articles in the constitution make the practice of Islam mandatory, and Maldives maintains a reservation on its adherence to Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights with respect to freedom of religion that states: “The application of the principles set out in Article 18 of the Covenant shall be without prejudice to the Constitution of the Republic of Maldives.” Schools are required to “inculcate obedience to Islam” and “instill love for Islam.” According to the international non-governmental organization (NGO) Forum 18, these provisions are understood to mean parents must educate their children as Sunni Muslims.

The Ministry of Islamic Affairs mandates Islamic instruction in schools, funds salaries of religious instructors, and certifies imams, who are responsible for presenting government-approved sermons. By law, no one may publicly discuss Islam unless invited to do so by the government, and imams may not prepare sermons without government authorization.

A government program promotes Islamic awareness in schools and reportedly aims to create youth who “love the religion and the country” and respect their parents.

Mosques are required to register with the government. The government maintains and funds most mosques. The law requires local councils to approve preaching in mosques and other public locations.

The regulations state: “It is illegal to propagate any other religion other than Islam.” Penalties for violations range from two to five years in prison or house arrest, depending on the gravity of the offense. Islamic proselytizing of Sunnis and non-Sunnis is illegal unless a government representative is present. The penalty for Islamic proselytizing is also two to five years in jail or house arrest, depending on the gravity of the offense. If the offender is a foreigner, his/her license to preach in the country would be revoked and he/she would be deported. Proselytizing of Muslims by adherents of other religions is also illegal, and the penalty is the same as for Islamic proselytizing.

Non-Muslim foreign residents may practice their religion only in private and may not encourage local citizens to participate. Foreigners may raise their children to follow any religious teaching as long as this is done privately in their homes or hotel rooms and they do not include citizens in their religious activities.

The law prohibits importation of any items deemed “contrary to Islam,” including alcohol, pork products, or religious statues for worship. Alcoholic beverages are available to tourists on resort islands, but it is against the law to offer alcohol to a citizen. The government generally permits the importation of religious literature.

Close community relationships and a strict adherence to Islamic precepts have historically helped keep crime low and under control. However, a growing heroin addiction problem, the emergence of youth gangs, especially in Male, and partisan rifts have increased the crime rate and the incidence of street violence.

By 2005 a fundamentalist strain of Islam antithetical to Maldives' traditional culture may be taking root. The Islamist Adalath (Justice) Party, which promotes "Koran over Constitution" ideals, had made small inroads, using its role as a political party to circumvent strict laws that limit public proselytizing. While the Adalath Party came in a distant third in a December 2005 parliamentary by-election, in January 2007 several Embassy contacts reported the Adalath Party was gaining in popularity. Adalath officials remained unresponsive to several Embassy requests to meet with them.

In January 2007, the Information Minister worried that a small group of zealots felt even the Adalath Party was religiously lax, and the Attorney General was concerned the Supreme Islamic Council led by the Chief Justice was not providing an adequate counter-balance to fundamentalist influences. These conservative critics argued that the principles of democracy were not consistent with Islam and had accused them of not doing enough to protect Islamic culture. The extremism can be traced to the growth of Wahhabism, independent prayer groups, and the lack of accurate information on Islam.

On 25 February 2013, the Juvenile Court sentenced a 15-year-old sexual abuse victim to 100 lashes and eight months of house arrest after she confessed to having sex outside marriage. The girl was convicted of adultery and fornication under Islamic law. The international community, including the U.S. embassy, condemned the judicial decision. The confession was made during an investigation into reports of repeated sexual abuse of the girl by her stepfather, and after the body of her deceased baby by the stepfather was found in the outside toilet of their home.

The stepfather was being tried for sexual abuse and murder, while the girl’s mother was charged with concealing a crime. The other man with whom the girl allegedly had sexual relations denied the charges and received no sentence. On August 21, the high court, after an appeal from the government following domestic and international pressure, annulled the juvenile court sentence against the girl. Amnesty International called the flogging sentence the “tip of the iceberg” of these types of religiously motivated prosecutions.

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Page last modified: 05-08-2015 19:58:10 ZULU