Persecuted Church: Maldives

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Every month our ministry chooses a different country where Christians are being persecuted and we commit to pray for them, as you can see in the sidebar here on our website. The country we are praying for in April is the Maldives. Much of the information regarding persecution in the Maldives that I’ve included here comes from Open Doors USA’s World Watch Research Maldives: Country Dossier (WWR).

Country Background

Maldives is located southwest of India in the Indian Ocean. The nation is actually a chain of almost 1,200 small islands, only 200 of which are inhabited.

The 2018 population was roughly 515,000. According to 2019 data, Maldives had the 8th highest population density (population per square kilometer) in the world thanks to the island of Male, which is the capital of the Maldives. This island/city has an area of 3.58 square miles and about 130,000 people, which is over 1/3 of the total population of the country. The rest of the population is mostly located in small, rural villages on some of the other islands.

If you have heard of Maldives, it is probably because of its popularity as a resort destination. It straddles the equator and is a tropical paradise with sandy beaches, coral reefs, and mild weather during the dry season (November-April). You can swim with manta rays and other exotic sea creatures or relax at one of over 150 resorts. The numerous scenic islands provide the perfect destination for a tropical getaway, and as a result tourism is a significant sector of their economy.

Despite the appearance of paradise, as we will see there are many issues that this country continues to face.

The Maldives is currently dominated by Islam. The religion seems to have been introduced to these islands sometime between 1100-1350, and came to receive the status of official religion through royal decree. Prior to this time Hinduism and Buddhism were practiced here. Islam continued to be the dominant religion into modern history as the islands were under Danish and then British rule while retaining a sultanate system. In 1965 they achieved full independence from Britain. In 1968, they became a republic and the sultanate was abolished. Although it seems like the nation has been slowly making changes to become more democratic, the current constitution makes it clear that Islam is the official religion and no other religions are welcome.

Government corruption is a big problem. Al Jazeera produced a documentary exposing corruption in the government, entitled Stealing Paradise. It reveals details of an attempted $1.5 billion money laundering scheme as well as other cases of bribery, fraud, and other crimes. It was aired on the national cable system in Maldives despite warnings from the government not to do so. The president at the time of the documentary, Abdulla Yameen, was convicted of money laundering in 2019 after losing his re-election campaign.

Human rights groups had hoped that the situation would improve after the 2018 elections, since Ibraham Solih, who has been a vocal critic of the government’s problems with corruption, unexpectedly ousted the incumbent Abdulla Yameen. Some observers were afraid that Yameen would rig the election or refuse to leave office, so the fact that Solih took office peacefully was seen as a promising sign.

Although there has been some progress, there have also been setbacks. Human Rights Watch reports, “Although the Maldives took some steps in 2019 to address longstanding human rights concerns, in November the government shut down the most prominent human rights organization in the country in response to complaints from religious leaders that it had insulted Islam. Extremist groups continued to pose a threat to human rights defenders and activists whom they accused of being ‘too secular,’ and to exert influence over the police courts, and other government institutions.” The human rights organization mentioned in this statement is Maldives Democracy Network. This group released a report in 2016 about the manner in which Islam is taught in public schools and how certain aspects of the curriculum are detrimental to a democratic society and engender religious extremism. In the weeks leading up to their dissolution, screenshots from the report highlighting passages that were deemed offensive to Islam had been circling around on social media and inciting outrage. A regional director at Amnesty International responded to the dissolution of the MDN: “The new Maldivian government was supposed to mark a break with the island nation’s repressive past. The decision to shut down the MDN’s operations, however, show that time-worn tactics to intimidate human rights defenders and shrink space for civil society remain a threat. The MDN is being punished for exercising its legitimate right to freedom of expression. The fact that a more than four-year-old report is being cited now as grounds to shut down the NGO raises suspicions as to the true motives behind this decision. Is the new government just as intolerant of critical voices as the one it replaced?”

A popular Maldivian blogger, Yameen Rasheed, who was vocally liberal on religious issues and used his blog to publicize his dissatisfaction with the government, was stabbed to death in the stairwell of his apartment in 2017. Many have felt that authorities mishandled the investigation and perhaps were themselves involved. Previously, another popular journalist was kidnapped and killed in 2014 with a similar response from the government. There has been some resolution in this abduction case recently, with a panel announcing the results of their investigation in 2019, that Rasheed was murdered by Islamic militants.

Persecution

The official stance of the Maldivian government is that no non-Muslim can be a citizen. Their constitution officially says: “Despite the provisions of article [9](a) [which explains the normal terms of citizenship] a non-Muslim may not become a citizen of the Maldives.” The section of the Constitution that follows this statement establishes Islam as the official religion of the nation: “No law contrary to any tenet of Islam shall be enacted in the Maldives.” WWR says, “The leaders' intention to protect the country from becoming less than 100% Islam is the ideological key for understanding the Maldives.” If a Maldivian Muslim apostasizes, they will lose their citizenship and may be imprisoned, fined, or deported. There is also the possibility that they may be harassed or even killed by civilian extremists.

There are non-citizens who reside on the islands, mainly expatriate workers. These are not allowed to publicly practice their religion or evangelize, although they are technically allowed to practice in private. The law states, “Non-Muslims living in or visiting the country are prohibited from openly expressing their religious beliefs, holding public congregations to conduct religious activities, or involving Maldivians in such activities.” They are not prohibited from meeting privately, but they are constantly monitored to make sure they aren’t evangelizing and they may experience harassment. WWR says of expatriates that they are “so strictly monitored and intimidated that they hardly dare to meet even behind closed doors.”

Despite the fact that Christianity is illegal, Open Doors estimates that there are “a few thousand” Christians who live in Maldives. Because of the risks associated with being Christian, they are forced to keep silent. Many individual believers are spiritually isolated because they don’t know how to find fellow Christians or can’t meet with them to avoid raising suspicions. WWR explains that there have even been cases where a Christian who is married eventually discovers that their spouse has been a Christian as well, but neither knew that the other was because they both had to keep it secret.

Christian materials are difficult to come by in the Maldives. The official language is Dhivehi, and the Bible has not yet been completely translated into this language. Even if it was, the government closely monitors materials coming into the country and does not allow materials that are deemed contrary to Islam. Expatriates may bring in Christian literature for private use, but there are strong limits on what is allowed. Those who violate this law may be jailed and deported. For example, in 2012 it was reported that a Bangledeshi and an American were both permanently banned from entering the country after trying to bring in Christian documents. In another case that does not appear to be the result of attempts at evangelism, over 100 books were confiscated from a local book fair in September of 2019: “Ahead of the seizure operation, photos of books deemed offensive were shared on social media. These included books on skepticism, Christianity and Eastern mysticism that were available at the fair.” The article which reported the seizure notes the specifics of the law: “Bringing into the country, creating, owning, selling, sharing or spreading material which is against the principles of Islam is an offence punishable with a jail sentence, banishment or house arrest between three to eight years.”

As I mentioned before, the largest population center is in Male, and it is very crowded. Due to this population density, there is very little privacy. The government monitors activities through security cameras on the streets, and communities socially enforce the status quo. On the smaller islands, native populations are not as heavily monitored by the government, but individuals still have little privacy due to the small size of the islands and the tightness of the community. One can imagine how difficult it would be to perform baptisms without anyone finding out. Open Doors notes that they could potentially be performed outside of the country or in a remote area, but this would raise suspicion among close family members and the community.

Gangs and criminal organizations run rampant. In some cases government officials are in league with these criminals. “It is common knowledge that certain gangs are in alliance with politicians, parties and security forces and are used for the violent intimidation of dissidents. Radical Islamic groups that want to ferret out Christians and atheists also have connections and influence with gangs and corrupt police networks” (WWR). Maldives has the highest number of jihadist fighters per capita in the world: approximately 200 individuals have left Maldives to fight for ISIS, and these terrorists are welcomed back home as heroes.

Due to the small number of Christians and the secrecy with which they must practice their religion, WWR was not able to publish the details of any specific persecution event. They do note that although persecution is extremely high here, violent persecution is fairly low. As WWR says, “persecution has never been very violent in the Maldives.” Nevertheless, Christianity is illegal and thus citizens cannot openly express their religion. If they do, they will face extreme pressure from their family and community to come back to Islam in addition to legal punishment or vigilante trials. Violence is not out of the question either, as I mentioned earlier about the two reporters who were killed.

Even Muslims who challenge the status quo face harassment. Ibraham Ismail, a chairman at Mandhu College, became a vocal critic of a judicial case where a woman was sentenced to death for adultery (though this verdict would later be overturned). As a result, he was threatened by Islamist groups and the college was vandalized. While police did investigate the attack, they also investigated Ismail about his comments to discover whether he did in fact insult Islam, which is illegal. If this is the potential response to a difference of opinion within Islam, one can imagine the potential for violence when someone converts to Christianity.

In 2018 the Ministry of Islamic Affairs published a policy paper where they detailed the biggest problems Maldivian society faces. They said the biggest problems were apostasy, mocking Islam, going to war in the name of Islam, and murdering in the name of Islam. Even though this report reaffirms the status quo regarding apostasy and protecting Islam, it also positioned itself against Muslim violence: “Attacking people who are known to have different views from one’s own, and harming their body, soul, property, wife and kids is now an occurrence in the Maldives, and needs to be addressed at a national level.” In 2019 a sheikh and two others were reportedly questioned when someone making an aesthetic judgment about a mosque received death threats on Twitter. So even though there seems to be some positive news here, that the government is taking more seriously its responsibility to protect its citizens from religious violence, the unfortunate news is that they also continue to criminalize anything considered contrary to the teachings of Islam.

Many tourists who come to the Maldives will not see any of the persecution discussed here, since their activities are typically isolated to uninhabited islands which are reserved for tourism. If a tourist did not research prior to their trip and wasn't going to an inhabited island, they might not even realize that Maldives is a Muslim nation. Nevertheless, there have been isolated incidents where tourists were affected by government policies. In 2015 the government firmly reminded island officials that they are not to host or allow any public celebrations of Christmas in guesthouses. And in 2018 an art installation at a Fairmont resort was destroyed by the police because it contained sculptures representing the human form, which is considered idolatry according to some schools of Islamic thought.

Although there is not a lot of information available about Christians in the Maldives, one can see from this portrait the kinds of troubles that they face in their walk of faith.

How to Pray

Here are some specific ways you can pray for Maldivian Christians:

  • Pray that Maldivian Christians will be able to find fellowship with other believers.
  • Pray that Maldivian Christians will be encouraged despite the harsh difficulties they face.
  • Pray that translators will be successful in translating the Bible into Dhivehi.
  • Pray that ministries such as Open Doors and Voice of the Martyrs will be successful in providing Bibles to believers.
  • Pray that those who are sharing their faith will be protected and successful.
  • Pray that religious freedom will prevail in the nation.
  • Pray that Maldivians (including the persecutors) will come to know the truth and receive salvation through Yeshua.

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