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The Maldives is a chain of some 1,200 small islands in the Indian ocean, southwest of Sri Lanka. Adherence to Islam, the state religion since the 12th century, is required for citizenship and nearly all of the nation's approximately 300,000 people are Muslims. The legal system is based on the Islamic code of sharia. 1

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1998-JUL-28: Maldives holding Christians captive:

LOMBO, Sri Lanka, 28 July 1998--Authorities in the south Asian Muslim nation of the Maldives are holding 50 Christians on religious grounds, according to the Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka. In a statement, the alliance said that since June 18 the Maldivian government has arrested all citizens suspected of being Christians and are holding them captive in the notorious political prison of Dhoonidhoo, a tiny island close to the capital of Male.

"The government continues to deny that Christians are imprisoned, treated harshly, or being deprived of their rights, despite much evidence to the contrary," says Godfrey Yogarajah, president of the Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka.

The High Commission of Maldives in Colombo issued a statement earlier this month claiming that allegations that Christians are being held for their faith is "totally false and baseless," and that there is "no religious discrimination in Maldives."

Evangelical Protestants in Sri Lanka held a prayer meeting for the alleged captives on Tuesday, followed by a protest near the Maldives High Commissioner's office in Colombo.

On Wednesday, Maldivian president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom arrives in Colombo for the 10th summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). "It is unfortunate and embarrassing that the president of the Maldives, who will be feted as an honored guest in Sri Lanka as the outgoing chairman of the SAARC countries, continues to deny even basic dignity and human rights to a segment of his own loyal citizens because of religious intolerance," Yogarajah says. 1

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1998-NOV-23: Maldives releases detained Christians:

LONDON, 23 November 1998--Authorities have released a group of more than 20 Maldivian Christians arrested in June on religious grounds, according to the human rights group Christian Solidarity Worldwide. The Christians, some of whom remained in prison for as long as four months, still face uncertainty regarding freedom to practice their faith in the self-proclaimed Muslim nation, the London-based group said.

The Maldives, an Indian Ocean archipelago southwest of Sri Lanka, requires that all citizens be Muslim. In June the government began unannounced searches of the homes of suspected Christians, confiscated possessions and imprisoned more than 20 people, CSW says. Though charges were alleged, the process by-passed the judicial system and no trial took place. The government expelled 19 foreigners in the crackdown.

The Maldivian government has consistently denied that anyone has been imprisoned for their faith. Tight media control has ensured that only one or two articles confirming the arrests reached the outside world. While the Maldivian government seemed initially resistant to pressure, they unexpectedly began releasing the prisoners to house arrest in late August. More releases followed and in the last week restrictions have finally been lifted on all the individuals involved.

CSW says that Maldivian authorities pressed the Christians to recant their faith during their imprisonment and forced them to read the Koran and undertake the daily Muslim prayers.

CSWs religious liberty director Tina Lambert says, "While we are, of course, relieved by the release of these individuals, the situation in this 'holiday paradise' has yet to improve, and discreet pressure must be maintained". 2

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2000-JUL-17: Maldives declared an Islam-only zone:

The president of the Maldives has declared that the island nation has no room for any religion other than Islam, and has accused foreigners of seeking to destroy the religious unity of the people by introducing other faiths.

President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom made his comments at a special meeting in the capital, Male, on July 3 to commemorate the anniversary of the Maldives becoming officially a Muslim nation. Under the 1997 constitution, Islam is the state religion of the former British protectorate in the Indian Ocean, and the government has declared the chain of 1,200 coral islands to be 100 percent Islamic.

President Gayoom claimed the Maldives has sustained its sovereignty by adhering to Islamic principles. He warned that if other religions were practiced the country would lose its independence.

According to a 1999 United States State Department report, freedom of religion is restricted significantly. "The government (imposes) a requirement that citizens be Muslims," the report says. "The practice of any religion other than Islam is prohibited by law." Non-Muslims are forbidden from proselytizing and conducting public worship. Any Muslim who converts to another faith is breaking the Sharia (Islamic law) and can lose his or her citizenship.

Until 1985 there were no known Christians among the Maldivian people, according to the Protestant reference book Operation World. A number converted to Christianity, however, after literature was made available in the national language, Dhivehi, and through listening to broadcasts by a missionary radio station based in the Seychelles. Small numbers of new converts met to worship and study the Bible, but they were ostracized by their families and neighbors and many lost their jobs.

In 1998 the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs banned Maldivians from listening to missionary radio and police arrested up to 50 local Christians from Muslim backgrounds, following a tip-off by teenagers, including the son of one of those arrested.

Police carried out unannounced searches of foreign workers homes, confiscating passports, Christian books, and other possessions. Many friends of Maldivian Christians also were questioned and detained.

According to British human rights organizations, intense pressure was placed on the Christian prisoners to convert to Islam. The Christians were forced to perform Islamic prayers five times daily and to read the Koran. One was kept in solitary confinement in a cell measuring just 6 feet long by 3 feet wide. Nineteen foreign workers, including children, were expelled for life on suspicion of missionary activity.

A European worker who was thrown out of the Maldives for being a Christian told the British-based group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) that she was forced to watch as her friends were roughed up by the police. "I felt helpless," said the woman, who cannot be named. "No crime has been committed -- unless being a Christian is a crime."

The Maldivian government denied the roundup, and an official press release claimed: "Although the Maldives is a 100 percent Muslim country, it has a very open and tolerant attitude to all religions." Yet a Maldivian newspaper described Christian believers as "infidels/pagans (who) believe in three gods (and) worship crosses and idols."

London-based Jubilee Campaign, Amnesty International, and Christian Solidarity Worldwide lobbied for the release of the Christians. Jubilee also called for a tourist boycott of the Maldives, whose economy is heavily dependent on the tourist trade from the West. After several months in detention all the Christians were released. The last to be set free was a 32-year-old woman, who said she was threatened with death by a prison officer for being an infidel.

Commenting on the latest presidential announcement, Wilfred Wong, the Jubilee Campaign's parliamentary officer, asserted: "President Gayoom is trying to justify his repressive attitude towards religious freedom by the unsubstantiated claim that it will preserve the stability and independence of his country." Wong warned: "Another harsh crackdown against Maldivian Christians will only bring down international condemnation on the Maldives and lead to a widespread boycott of their tourist trade."

Tina Lambert, CSWs religious liberty director, added: "We must maintain pressure on the Maldivian government to encourage greater religious liberty on these islands, in line with international standards."

The government of the Maldives recently banned the Steven Spielberg animated film "The Prince of Egypt," explaining that its portrayal of the prophet Moses was "offensive to Islam, because all prophets and messengers of God are not to be animated or portrayed in any way." 3

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  1. Source: Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka/Godfrey Yogarajah
  2. Source: Christian Solidarity Worldwide/Tina Lambert
  3. Reprinted with permission from Newsroom.org. Their home page is at http://www.newsroom.org Their service is "Designed to help editors, journalists and decision makers cover the religious dimension to news, Newsroom offers story leads, reports, analysis, commentary and local contacts drawn from a global network of news agencies, reporters and scholars.

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Originally written: 2000-JUL-17
Latest update: 2000-JUL-17

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