10/20/2008, 00.00
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Sharia in force on atolls of the Maldives

In the archipelago, famous for its beaches and ocean, the Sunni form of Islam is the only religion allowed. The revision of the constitution in August did not bring any substantial developments on religious freedom. At the end of October, the country will choose a new president, but none of the candidates in the initial multiparty elections has addressed the topic.

Malè (AsiaNews) - It is a natural paradise, an archipelago of more than a thousand islands, but that's not all. The tourists don't realize it, but the Maldives is also one of the few countries in the world that allow only a single religion for its inhabitants: Sunni Islam. The human rights organization Forum 18 has carried out a survey on the situation of religious freedom in the country in view of the second round of the presidential election. On October 28, the population of the archipelago is called to the ballot box to vote on the leader of the Maldives. The favored candidate is Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, in power since 1978.

According to the official statistics, out of a population of 300,000 inhabitants, there are no non-Muslims. Nonetheless, ten years ago 50 Christian inhabitants were locked up in the prison of Dhoonidho, and once released continued to live under surveillance, prohibited from meeting together, praying, or reading religious texts not approved by the government.

It is only in the last few years that there have been a few small signs of change in the country. 2007 brought a new movement, called New Maldives. Identifying itself as reformist, the new organization has promoted a campaign on behalf of democratic renewal in the country. Nonetheless, New Maldives has never expressed clear condemnation of the total absence of religious freedom in the archipelago. Also in 2007, attorney general Hassan Saeed resigned in protest against the president, charged with blocking reforms.The first terrorist attack also took place last year, with Islamic militants accused over an explosion in the park of Malè, which wounded a number of tourists.

This past August, when Gayoom announced the implementation of a new constitution, many international observers hailed the event as a first positive sign. It nonetheless emerges from the analysis of Forum 18 that very little has changed in the life of the country, and almost nothing in the area of religious freedom.

According to the revised constitution, in article two, it says that the republic "is based on the principles of Islam." Article nine says that "a non-Muslim may not become a citizen of the Maldives"; number ten says that "no law contrary to any principle of Islam can be applied in the Maldives." Article nineteen states that "citizens are free to participate in or carry out any activity that is not expressly prohibited by sharia or by the law."

At the beginning of October, the country faced multiparty elections for the first time. Of the six candidates, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and the leader of the main opposition party, Mohamed Nasheed, made it to the second round: neither of them has addressed the topic of religious freedom. According to the report by Forum 18, this silence discourages the beginning of a real process of democratization in the Maldives.

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