International Religious Freedom Report 2008

The 1997 Constitution designates Islam as the official state religion. The law prohibits the practice by citizens of any religion other than Islam. Non-Muslim foreigners are allowed to practice their religious beliefs only privately. Visitors must also refrain from encouraging local citizens to practice any religion other than Islam.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report. Freedom of religion remained severely restricted. The Government imposes a requirement that citizens be Muslims and government regulations are based on Islamic law (Shari'a). The President is the "supreme authority to propagate the tenets of Islam."

There were no specific reports of societal discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice. According to many officials and interlocutors, most citizens regarded Islam as one of their society's most distinctive characteristics and believed that it promotes harmony and national identity.

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has an area of 500 square miles distributed across 1,200 coral atolls and islands, with a population of 380,000.

The population is a distinct ethnic group with historical roots in South Indian, Sinhalese, and Arab communities. The vast majority of the Muslim population practices Sunni Islam. Non-Muslim foreigners, including 675,000 tourists who visit annually (predominantly Europeans and Japanese) and 70,000 foreign workers (mainly Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Indians, and Bangladeshis), in general are only allowed to practice their religious beliefs in private. Most Muslim tourists and Muslim foreign workers choose to practice Islam in private or at mosques located at the resorts where they work and live.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework
Freedom of religion is restricted significantly. The 1997 Constitution designates Islam as the official state religion, and the Government and many citizens at all levels interpret this provision to impose a requirement that all citizens be Muslims. The Constitution also stipulates that the President must be Sunni and has the "supreme authority to propagate the tenets of Islam." Chapter II of the Constitution relating to the fundamental rights and duties of citizens does not provide for the right to freedom of religion or belief. Furthermore, the Constitution precludes non-Muslims from voting and holding public positions.

The country is in the process of drafting a new constitution. There is widespread support for an explicit constitutional requirement that all citizens be Muslim. Such a provision would contravene obligations that the country has undertaken in signing several international conventions, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The "Protection of the religious unity among Maldivians Act" states that both the Government and the people must protect religious unity. Any statement or action contrary to this law is subject to criminal penalty; if a person is found guilty, sentences range from a fine to imprisonment.

Non-Muslim foreign residents are allowed to practice their religious beliefs only if they do so privately and do not encourage local citizens to participate.

The Government follows civil law based on Shari'a. Civil law is subordinate to Shari'a; in the event a situation is not covered by civil law, as well as in certain cases such as divorce and adultery, Shari'a is applied.

According to press reports, in October 2007 the Justice Ministry banned clothing that conceals a person's identity in court; however, the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, which is appointed by the Government, is yet to ratify President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom's call for a blanket ban on the full veil.

Foreigners were not allowed to import any items deemed "contrary to Islam," including alcohol, pork products, or religious statues for worship. Alcoholic beverages were available to tourists on resort islands, but it remains against the law to offer alcohol to a local citizen.

The Government observes Islamic holy days as national holidays.

Mosques were not required to register with the Government. The Government maintained and funded most mosques.

The primary responsibility of imams was to present Friday sermons. They used a set of government-approved sermons on a variety of topics and were not legally empowered to write sermons independently. No one, not even an imam, may publicly discuss Islam unless invited to do so by the Government. According to government officials, this rule was in place to maintain a moderate Islamic environment rather than a fundamentalist one.

Men who wish to act as imams must sit for public exams and present their scores and credentials to the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, which is chaired by the Chief Justice. The Supreme Council is empowered to certify imams. However, if the Supreme Council denies certification, the petitioner can appeal to the Board of Education. The Human Rights Commission reported that there are female imams who, in that role, interact with women only.

Islamic instruction was a mandatory part of the school curriculum, and the Government funded the salaries of instructors of Islam. Islamic instruction was only one component of the curriculum used in the majority of schools. Arabic-medium schools focused primarily on Islam. Many people who sought further religious education obtained it in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, or other Islamic countries. Schools offered religious education for women.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

Non-Muslim religious identity was prohibited; President Gayoom stated repeatedly that citizens are born Muslim.

All religious matters were controlled by the Government. The Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs was mandated to provide guidance on religious matters, including centrally drafting sermons. The Government set standards for imams to ensure they have adequate theological qualifications and to prevent fundamentalism from gaining ground.

There were no places of worship for adherents of other religious groups. The Government prohibited the importation of icons and religious statues, but it generally permitted the importation of religious literature, such as Bibles, for personal use. The sale of religious items, such as Christmas cards, was restricted to the resort islands patronized by foreign tourists.

Media reported that at a gathering of the ruling party in February 2008, the President promoted the view that music is allowed and acceptable in Islam. In reaction, a local religious nongovernmental organization organized a gathering on March 13, 2008, and showed a video of prominent local Islamic scholars, including officials from the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, the Human Rights Commission, and political parties, saying that music is forbidden in Islam. The police halted the function without prior warning and cited as its motive the risk of religious extremism.

A dispute ongoing since 2006 on Himandhoo Island flared into a confrontation between security personnel and armed worshippers at a mosque in 2007. The dispute began when the Government built a mosque on the site of a graveyard, which is forbidden in Islam. The people refused to worship in that mosque and opened their own unlicensed mosque, in defiance of the Religious Unity Act, which restricts prayer to government mosques. In October 2006 police shut down the locally-built mosque, transferred its sacred materials to an administrative office for safekeeping, and destroyed the mosque. The press reported that on October 11, 2006, police used undue force in arresting nine persons who were worshipping at a site on the beach after the closure of the locally-built mosque. A confrontation ensued. Police reportedly hit and kicked several persons and used pepper spray against them. Most Himandhoo residents continued to boycott the government-built mosque. On October 6, 2007, when more than 100 security personnel arrived on the island to search for suspects of the September 29, 2007, bombing in Male, police clashed with approximately 70 masked armed men at the locally-built mosque, which local residents had rebuilt. More than 30 police and army personnel, and an undisclosed number of the mosque group, were injured in the clash. Security forces arrested 62 individuals after the group surrendered. Local media portrayed the incident as part of a general crackdown on "religious extremists" following the Male' bombing. In 2008, 14 men involved in the mosque siege were convicted of terrorism, plus one minor convicted in the juvenile court. Of the 14, 4 detainees made allegations of abuse in police custody during the investigation, with all 4 saying the beatings were attempts to force them to confess. All 14 received 10-year sentences; the minor was sentenced to 6 years and 8 months in jail.

Press reported that female police officers can only wear the headscarf after obtaining a special permit. According to a group of female police officers, after some of them received this permit, it was revoked before they could wear the headscarf.

On August 10, 2007, while addressing a gathering to commemorate the Holy Prophet’s Isra and Miraj, President Gayoom reportedly called on citizens to use freedom of expression within the limits of Islam. He emphasized the Prophet’s lesson on the importance of honesty.

Parents must raise their children to be Muslim in accordance with the law. Foreigners can raise their children to follow any religious teachings as long as they practice privately in their homes or hotel rooms and do not try to include local citizens in their worship.

The Government prohibited non-Muslim clergy and missionaries from proselytizing or conducting public worship services. Islamic proselytizing was also illegal unless a government representative was present. Conversion by a Muslim to another religious group is interpreted as a violation of Shari'a and may result in punishment, including the loss of the convert's citizenship. There were no known cases of the Government discovering converts and rescinding citizenship as a result of conversion. In the past, would-be converts were detained and counseled to dissuade them from converting. However, according to press reports, a handful of the country's vibrant blogging community has reportedly identified itself as atheists or even Christians.

Faith-based NGOs were not specifically precluded by law from operating.

The law prohibits public statements that are contrary to Islam.

The Government registered only clubs and other private associations that do not contravene Islamic or civil law.

By law the President and cabinet ministers must be Sunni Muslims. Members of the People's Majlis (Parliament), the People's Special Majlis, Atoll Chiefs, and the judiciary must be Muslim; however, they are not required to be Sunni.

Under the country's Islamic practice, the testimony of two women is required to equal that of one man in matters such as adultery, finance, and inheritance. In other cases, the testimony of men and women is equal. Shari'a also governs estate inheritance, granting male heirs twice the share of female heirs. The Constitution provides that an accused person has the right to defend himself "in accordance with Shari'a." Family Law prohibits women from marrying non-Muslim foreigners but allows men to marry non-Muslim foreigners, as permitted by Shari'a.

There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees in the country.

Forced Religious Conversion

There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section III. Societal Abuses and Discrimination

There were no specific reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice.

Most citizens regard Islam as one of their society's most distinctive characteristics and believe that it promotes harmony and national identity. The President regularly encourages all citizens to seek unity through shared religious beliefs.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government does not maintain an embassy in the country. The U.S. Ambassador in Colombo, Sri Lanka is also accredited to the Government in Male, and Embassy Colombo officers travel frequently to the country. The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.