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MALDIVES: What do Maldivians understand freedom of religion or belief to be?

Why is there hostility to freedom of religion or belief in the Maldives, where Islam in a form approved by the state is the only legal faith? This hostility even extends to parliament unanimously considering a draft bill to ban the – already impossible – possibility of building non-Muslim places of worship. Although some Maldivians anonymously identify themselves as different from the repressive Maldivian identity imposed by former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, hostility - from both state and society - to freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression continues under President Mohamed Nasheed. Repressive legal instruments, state actions and social intolerance contribute to this hostility, which imposes barriers on Maldivians' understanding of what their human rights are. This has serious implications for the Maldives' future. Some parents have told Forum 18 News Service that they are afraid of what may happen if they bring their children up with Muslim or non-Muslim beliefs different from those imposed by state and society. As a Muslim explained, "if I teach my child that Islam respects all human beings as equal his Islam teacher states that women are inferior." She commented that "if I don't want my child to grow up with this kind of attitudes and thinking, I see no other way than to migrate."

MALDIVES: Almost no religious freedom for migrant workers

Just as Maldivian citizens do not have the right to religious freedom – Sunni Islam in the state-approved form is the only permitted faith – migrant workers too are denied this right. The Maldives prevents the import of non-Muslim books and other religious items, for example by searching foreigners' luggage for "un-Islamic" materials. Migrant workers are banned from practising non-Muslim faiths even privately, while the lack of privacy in which many live makes it almost impossible to worship "unnoticed by locals", as one migrant worker put it to Forum 18 News Service. Some 80,000 migrant workers – mostly Muslims, Buddhists, Christians and Hindus from South Asia – make up about a quarter of the country's population, but are mostly in low-status jobs and find it difficult to challenge human rights violations. The government has not acted on United Nations recommendations to grant migrant workers religious freedom. The International Labour Organisation – which the Maldives has just joined - told Forum 18 that "although freedom of religion may not exist in Maldives, migrant workers can count on ILO protection when it comes to rights at work and working conditions."

MALDIVES: Reform excludes freedom of religion or belief

Mohamed Nasheed's election as President of the Maldives was hailed as the dawn of a new era of democracy and freedom in the Indian Ocean country. Under former President Gayoom, the once religiously tolerant Maldives – which tended towards folk Islam – was changed into a society intolerant of all beliefs except state-approved Sunni Islam. President Nasheed has, Forum 18 News Service notes, taken no steps to dismantle the Gayoom legacy of continuing religious freedom violations. Indeed, the scope for violations has been increased by the creation of a new and powerful Ministry of Islamic Affairs. The 2008 Maldivian Constitution, inherited from the Gayoom era, also places many obstacles in the way of establishing human rights. Many Maldivians – especially secular and non-Muslim Maldivians forced to conceal their beliefs - have begun using anonymous weblogs to voice their concern over the situation. Fear of social ostracism and government punishment prevents this concern from being openly expressed. If President Nasheed does not respect all Maldivians' right to freedom of religion or belief, he will not be able to fulfil his promises to respect their human rights.

MALDIVES: Religious freedom survey, October 2008

The Maldives is well known as a tourist destination, but its severe repression of freedom of thought, conscience and belief is less well-known. The Maldives is one of the few states – such as Saudi Arabia - that allows only one faith to be practised publicly, and even insists that all citizens must be Muslims. Islam itself can only be openly practised in the government-favoured version of Sunni Islam, Forum 18 News Service has found. The public practice of other faiths – including other forms of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity – is banned. The state closely monitors all forms of religious expression, Forum 18 notes, and the cramped living conditions most Maldivians endure facilitates this. Maldivians are - justifiably – fearful that they will face severe consequences if they publicly and identifiably defend everyone's right to freedom of thought, conscience and belief. No candidate in the country's first multi-party presidential election, for which a run-off is due on 28 October, has called for improvement in this aspect of the country's human rights record.