Christians in the Maldives have few rights, but until now at least the courts would protect those rights. Now, however, the government is increasingly controlling the courts and simply ignoring the law, leaving Christians in an even more vulnerable state.
The Maldivian government has just suspended one-third of all lawyers in the islands, after they tried to submit a petition to the Supreme Court calling for the rule of law to be respected. The 56 lawyers who signed the petition were suspended from practising by the government.
Despite being a popular tourist destination, the Maldives is one of the most difficult places in the world to be a Christian. The 2008 Maldivian constitution bans Muslims from becoming Christians, which leaves open the question as to whether someone who becomes a Christian could be stripped of their citizenship.
In 1998, the government arrested 50 Maldivians suspected of having become Christians and is thought to have tortured them. Any Maldivian even found to have a Bible in their house faces a prison sentence.
There were signs of hope in 2008, with the election of President Mohammed Nasheed of the Maldivian Democratic Party, who called for a ‘tolerant’ form of Islam. However, he was forced out of office in 2012. He was recently granted political asylum in the UK after being sentenced to 13 years in prison for ‘terrorism’, in a trial that the UN said was politically motivated.
All of this makes the plight of Maldivian Christians even more precarious. The Maldivian government appears to be pursuing a slow process of Islamisation, possibly partly in response to the challenge from the Maldives’ other opposition group, the Islamist Adhaalath Party.
Last year, the government passed a Defamation and Freedom of Speech Act, which criminalised any comments against ‘any tenet of Islam’, in effect an Islamic blasphemy law.
In some countries, Christians suffer because of repressive laws that restrict freedom of religion. In others, while the constitution guarantees freedom of religion, Christians suffer because the government simply ignores the law. This latest development suggests that Christians in the Maldives are now being oppressed in both ways: they suffer because of laws preventing them openly living as Christians, and now the government is simply ignoring even the few legal freedoms they do have.