Police in the island nation of Maldives held a teacher from India for about 15 days before deporting him on Oct. 14 for having a Bible in his house, a source said.
Last month, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs published new regulations under the Protection of Religious Unity Act of 1994 in the government gazette, signaling a renewed commitment to control unlicensed preaching of Islam and propagation of non-Islamic religions in the country.
The Act outlaws promotion of anything that represents a religion other than Islam or any opinion that disagrees with Islamic scholars. It also prohibits use of any website, blog, newspaper or magazine that contradicts Islam. Any violation under the Act is punishable by an imprisonment of between two and five years, banishment or house arrest. Foreigners who are found proselytizing are to be deported, it says.
The new set of regulations maintains a longtime ban on propagation, display and expression of any religion other than Islam. It also prohibits translation of books with such content into the local language, Dhivehi.
The regulations state that only preachers licensed by the government are allowed to speak in public, and they must not create hatred towards people of any other religion—the latter stipulation has been criticized by members of Islamic organizations such as the Islamic Foundation of Maldives, who say that because the Quran speaks against Judaism and Christianity, they too should have the right to do so.
The regulations require foreign scholars to abstain from criticizing Maldives’ social norms, domestic policies or laws. And media must not disseminate any information that “humiliates Allah or his prophets or the holy Quran or the Sunnah of the Prophet [Muhammad] or the Islamic faith.”
The nation’s tight control over religion is seen as a legacy of former authoritarian President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who ruled for 30 years until 2008, keeping religion and its institutions under his grip. He was particularly known for insulating the country against Wahhabi influence from Saudi Arabia and for checking alleged missionary activities by Christians.
President Mohamed Nasheed seeks to deviate from Gayoom’s policies but has not been able to introduce any major reforms or ensure religious freedom. Any advocacy for individual rights is seen as a Western conspiracy to attack Islam in the country. Maldivian conservatives do not allow citizens to become atheists, and leaving Islam can attract violence and harassment by authorities.
Nasheed’s moderate Maldivian Democratic Party does not have a majority in the parliament. In 2009, the main opposition party, the Maldivian People’s Party led by Gayoom, won a majority in the parliamentary election.
Decades of carefully exercised political control over religious narrative in the Maldives has left in its wake a culture of intolerance among the general public unsympathetic to wider views on non-Islamic religions and hostile to Islamic academics and Muslim religious scholars who espouse a more humane form of Islam.
A Minivan author wrote last month that many Maldivian lawmakers and senior government officials privately admit “their hands are tied when it comes to the issue of freedom of religion.” The author asserted that advocating universal human rights “is the easiest way of committing political suicide in the Maldives.”