The constitution and other laws and policies restrict religious freedom. The constitution designates Sunni Islam as the official state religion, referring to the country as “100 percent” Muslim, and government regulations are based on Islamic law. The government interprets these provisions as imposing a requirement that all citizens be Muslim. Non-Muslims may not obtain citizenship. The constitution does not provide for the right to freedom of religion or belief, nor does it prohibit discrimination based on religion. The constitution bars non-Muslims from voting and holding public positions, and stipulates that judges, cabinet ministers, members of parliament, and the president must be Sunni.
The justice system is based on a hybrid of common and Islamic law. The government follows civil law based on Islamic law, but civil law is subordinate to Islamic law. In a situation not covered by civil law, and in certain cases such as divorce and adultery, only Islamic law is applied. To date the country has not implemented many of the hadd, or penalties prescribed by Islamic law, such as stoning and amputations, but the criminal justice system imposes flogging sentences for a number of crimes, including fornication. Women are far more likely to receive a flogging sentence than men. The president’s office is considering use of capital punishment.
The law prohibits public statements contrary to Islam and violators face penalties ranging from two to five years in prison or house arrest.
Several articles in the constitution make the practice of Islam mandatory, and Maldives maintains a reservation on its adherence to Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights with respect to freedom of religion that states: “The application of the principles set out in Article 18 of the Covenant shall be without prejudice to the Constitution of the Republic of Maldives.” Schools are required to “inculcate obedience to Islam” and “instill love for Islam.” According to the international non-governmental organization (NGO) Forum 18, these provisions are understood to mean parents must educate their children as Sunni Muslims.
The Ministry of Islamic Affairs mandates Islamic instruction in schools, funds salaries of religious instructors, and certifies imams, who are responsible for presenting government-approved sermons. By law, no one may publicly discuss Islam unless invited to do so by the government, and imams may not prepare sermons without government authorization.
A government program promotes Islamic awareness in schools and reportedly aims to create youth who “love the religion and the country” and respect their parents.
Mosques are required to register with the government. The government maintains and funds most mosques. The law requires local councils to approve preaching in mosques and other public locations.
The Religious Unity Act states both the government and the people must protect religious unity. Any statement or action found contrary to this aim is subject to criminal penalty. Specific crimes listed in the act include working to disrupt the religious unity of Maldivians, any discussions or acts promoting religious differences, and delivering religious sermons or engaging in public discussions in a way that infringes upon the independence and sovereignty of the country, or limits the rights of a specific section of society. Sentences for violators range from a fine to imprisonment, and may include deportation for foreigners.
Regulations stipulate strict requirements for preaching, and the regulations contain general principles for the delivery of religious sermons. The regulations prohibit statements in sermons that may be interpreted as racial and gender discrimination; discourage access to education or health services in the name of Islam; or demean the character of, or create hatred towards, people of any other religion. In addition, the regulations require any scholar to have prior written approval from the Ministry of Islamic Affairs to preach. Foreign scholars may not criticize domestic policies and laws in their sermons.
The regulations state: “It is illegal to propagate any other religion other than Islam.” Penalties for violations range from two to five years in prison or house arrest, depending on the gravity of the offense. Islamic proselytizing of Sunnis and non-Sunnis is illegal unless a government representative is present. The penalty for Islamic proselytizing is also two to five years in jail or house arrest, depending on the gravity of the offense. If the offender is a foreigner, his/her license to preach in the country would be revoked and he/she would be deported. Proselytizing of Muslims by adherents of other religions is also illegal, and the penalty is the same as for Islamic proselytizing.
Non-Muslim foreign residents may practice their religion only in private and may not encourage local citizens to participate. Foreigners may raise their children to follow any religious teaching as long as this is done privately in their homes or hotel rooms and they do not include citizens in their religious activities.
The law prohibits importation of any items deemed “contrary to Islam,” including alcohol, pork products, or religious statues for worship. Alcoholic beverages are available to tourists on resort islands, but it is against the law to offer alcohol to a citizen. The government generally permits the importation of religious literature, such as Bibles, for personal use. The sale of religious items, such as Christmas cards, is restricted to the resort islands patronized by foreign tourists.
The government registers only clubs and other private associations that do not contravene Islamic or civil law; many informal groups, such as the Bar Association, do not have to register.
By law a Maldivian woman cannot marry a non-Muslim foreigner unless he converts to Islam first. A Maldivian man, however, can marry a non-Muslim foreigner if the foreigner is Christian or Jewish. A Maldivian man cannot marry a non-Muslim foreigner who is not Christian or Jewish unless the woman converts to Islam prior to marriage.
The government interprets the conversion by a Muslim to another religion as a violation of Islamic law, which could result in punishment, including loss of the convert’s citizenship. There are no known cases of the government discovering converts and rescinding their citizenship.