02/19/2009, 00.00
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No place for religious freedom in the Maldives’ new democratic dispensation

President Nasheed had pledged freedom of expression and promised to uphold human rights. Instead under the Maldives’s constitution all Maldivians must still be Sunni Muslims. In order to keep his coalition together he has had to give the Ministry of Religious Affairs to the leader of one of the most intransigent Islamic parties. But voices of dissent are finding their way into the blogosphere.
Malé (AsiaNews/Agencies) – In reform-minded, pro-democracy President Mohamed Nasheed’s brave, new Maldives there is no place for religious freedom or Maldivians who are not Sunni Muslims.

Four months after historic elections marked the end of the 30-year unchallenged rein of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the Maldives are still far off from the changes proposed by the new president who is currently visiting Italy to promote his country as a tourist destination.

“We are escaping from censorship of freedom of expression, and from barriers to human rights today. We are going to[wards] another Maldives,” Nasheed had said during the election campaign, but the first few months of his rule have seen anything but that.

Under the 41-year-old former political prisoner religious freedom remains a pipedream. Sunni Islam is the state religion and the constitution clearly states that no Maldivian citizen can hold any other creed.

Human rights organisation Forum 18 reports that not only has Nasheed not changed anything from what existed under his predecessor, but has in fact increased the powers of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, now under Sheikh Abdul Majeed Abdul Bari, head of the Islamic Scholars Council of the Adhaalath Party, one of the two Islamic parties that backed Nasheed in the 2008 presidential election.

According to Forum18, many Maldivians have begun using anonymous weblogs to voice their concern over the situation. Many are afraid that the president might have simply handed religion over to Sheikh Bari in exchange for his party support to the coalition government.

The place of religion in society and discrimination against non-Muslims played a significant role in the election. During the campaign former President Gayoom had accused Nasheed several time of being a “Christian”, one of the worst possible insults that can be levelled against anyone.

The country’s old despot, who ran the archipelago from 1978 till 2008, also accused the opposition of trying to introduce “foreigners and Jews” as well as non-Islamic religions into the country.

His political adversaries retorted accusing him of not being Sunni Muslim.

Forum18 also reports that religion was not used only by openly Islamic parties like Adhaalath and the Islamic Democratic Party (IDP). Nasheed himself had to drop Aminath Jameel, a woman who trained at the Christian Medical College in Vellore (India), as his running mate, yielding to pressures both within and outside his party.

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