Non-Muslims To Lose Citizenship Under New Constitution

Information minister Mohamed Nasheed has admitted on his personal blog that Maldivians who convert away from Islam, or who are children of Maldivians married to non-Muslims, risk losing their citizenship of the country under the constitution in progress.

The issue is believed to have been raised with government by international diplomats visiting Maldives during the development of the constitution.

A prominent lawyer who wished to remain anonymous told Minivan News the clause was “not practical” and would “formally introduce asylum seekers from the Maldives”, doing “more harm than good in the international community”.

He also acknowledged “practical” issues with the clause, saying it would be difficult to implement.

But Nasheed says a last-minute change is unlikely, because “it will be very difficult for Maldives mentality to accept Maldives citizens may belong to a different faith…No Maldives leader would want to rock the boat.”

The anonymous lawyer agreed public pressure was likely to prevent parliamentarians from opposing the clause.

The constitution has still not been finalised, and the attorney general’s office (AGO) has now raised over 200 issues of consistency, wording and practicality, to be addressed by the constitutional drafting committee and Special Majlis (constitutional assembly) before ratification. However the citizenship question does not appear on the list.

And presidential candidates were reluctant to adopt a position on the issue ahead of the country’s first multi-party presidential elections, expected once the constitution comes into force.

Former attorney general Dr Hassan Saeed, now standing as an independent candidate, said the issue was of “very little relevance” as “we do not have a non-Muslim population”.

Mohamed Nasheed (Anni), contesting on the largest opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) ticket, said the MDP “can’t have a position outside the constitution”.

However another candidate, Umar Naseer of the Islamic Democratic Party (IDP), said to local newspaper Miadhu: “In my government there would be no chance [of] any other religion.”

And Sheikh Abdul Majeed Abdul Bari, head of the religious Adhaalath party scholars’ council, told Minivan News in a May 13 interview he personally supported the tightening of citizenship regulation.

Citizenship is dealt with in the existing constitution, in force since 1998, in clause 5, which reads as follows: “Persons mentioned herein below shall be citizens of the Maldives: (a) every person who is a citizen of the Maldives at the commencement of this Constitution; (b) every child born to a citizen of the Maldives; and (c) every foreigner who, in accordance with the law, becomes a citizen of the Maldives.”

But the constitution in progress adds additional subclauses which specify (in unofficial translation) that “citizenship cannot be wrested away from a citizen of the Maldives”, “Any person who wishes to relinquish his citizenship may do so in accordance with law,” and “despite [earlier] provisions…a non-Muslim may not become a citizen of the Maldives.”

Despite the wording specifying citizenship cannot be “wrested away”, lawyers and government interpret the clause as removing citizenship from those who leave Islam or are children of non-Muslims.

“No Maldives politician would want to take the case up,” said Nasheed on his blog. Yet, he contends, “they all would privately agree that citizenship of the country he is born in, or his parents belong to, is…a human right.”

The anonymous lawyer said that because parliament is televised and “they [MPs] want to get re-elected”, a change through parliament was unlikely, but also said it would be “difficult” to reduce the impact of the clause through legislation.

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In Iran, Covert Christian Converts Live With Secrecy and Fear

A draft Iranian law would mandate the death penalty for apostasy
By Anuj Chopra
Posted May 8, 2008

TEHRAN, IRAN—Illyas, 20, precariously straddles two worlds. At home with his family, he’s a devout Christian who wears a silver cross around his neck, devotionally reads the Bible, and, on the Sabbath, hums hymns of praise to Jesus. Easter and Christmas are celebrated with homemade grape wine, even though alcohol is banned in Iran.

Publicly, though, Illyas is a devout Muslim. Before leaving home to attend university classes, he removes the cross. He falsely tells his teachers about reading the Koran regularly since, he says, expressing fealty to Islam is necessary to land a good job in Iran. And he regularly goes to Friday prayers at Tehran University, where, if necessary, he joins in chants of Marg-bar Amrika (Death to America)—although he says that he doesn’t hate America and, in fact, hopes to move there someday.

Illyas and his mother and stepfather—for their safety, their family name cannot be revealed—had been Muslims (as are 98 percent of the nation’s 66 million citizens). That changed a year ago, when they were drawn to a seductively passionate voice on a satellite TV channel imploring Iranians to embrace Christianity. On hearing the voice, Illyas’s mother called the channel’s hotline number. She prayed with the counselor on the phone, she says, making a personal commitment to Jesus as her savior. Later, Illyas and his stepfather did the same, as the counselor from California’s Iran for Christ Ministries led them in prayer.

The counselor was able to put Illyas in touch with some local Iranians—also discreet believers—who could provide a copy of the Bible. “We were looking for a faith that offered the reassurance of freedom,” says Illyas, who asked to be interviewed in a public restaurant in Tehran instead of his house.

Islam is the state religion of Iran, governing most aspects of life since the 1979 Islamic revolution. But, exasperated with the obsessive atmosphere of Islamic purity in Iran since the revolution and the subsequent curbing of social freedoms, Illyas says, his family felt compelled to look for other spiritual answers, even at considerable risk.

Leaving Islam for another religion, or apostasy, has long invited reprisals from the Iranian government, forcing the likes of Illyas and his family into absolute secrecy, practicing their new beliefs only in the privacy of their home. In Iran, Christians are prohibited from seeking Muslim converts, although there has been tolerance for those who are born into Christian families.

The government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has introduced legislation before the Iranian Majlis that would mandate the death penalty for apostates from Islam, a sign that it will brook no proselytizing in the country. “Life for so-called apostates in Iran has never been easy, but it could become literally impossible if Iran passes this new draft penal code,” says Joseph Grieboski, the president of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy in Washington. “For anyone who dares question the regime’s religious ideology, there could soon be no room to argue—only death.”

Minorities. Grieboski points out that the text of the draft penal code uses the word hadd (prescribed punishment), which explicitly sets death as a fixed, irrevocable punishment. He worries that it could be applied to religious and ethnic minorities like Christians, Bahais, Jews, and Azeris by treating them as apostates.

Articles 225 to 227 of the draft penal code define two kinds of apostates: fetri, or an innate apostate—who has at least one Muslim parent, identifies as a Muslim after puberty, and later renounces Islam; and melli, or parental apostate—who is a non-Muslim at birth but later embraces Islam, only to renounce it again. The draft code says outright that punishment for an innate apostate is death. However, parental apostates have three days after their sentencing to recant their beliefs. If they don’t, they will be executed according to their sentence. It isn’t clear when this bill will be passed, though Grieboski says, “International pressure and attention—in large part due to our work—has significantly slowed the parliament’s progress.”

In the past, apostasy could draw a range of punishments, from imprisonment to death, under legal practices that were more ambiguous than the draft statutes. In one instance that drew international attention, Mehdi Dibaj, an Iranian convert, was held in prison for his Christian beliefs for 10 years starting in 1984. He received the death sentence at the end of 1993. But he was released from prison in January 1994 after an international publicity campaign by Haik Hovsepian Mehr, a prominent Christian pastor in Iran. A few days after Dibaj’s release, Hovsepian Mehr was abducted in Tehran, and his body, with 26 stab wounds, was found secretly buried in a Muslim graveyard. Six months later, Dibaj, freed but still under a pending death sentence, was abducted and murdered.

Considering the perils, Muslim Iranians turn to satellite television (though officially prohibited), radio, and the Internet to talk about faiths other than Islam. Some names include the Iranian Christian Television Channel, run by a registered charity based in the United Kingdom; Radio Mojdeh; and Iranian Christian Radio.

SAT-7 PARS, a Middle Eastern Christian satellite station headquartered in Cyprus, began broadcasting in Farsi to Iran in the fall of 2002, under the name of Iranian Christian Broadcasting. In late 2006, it launched the 24-hour Farsi-language satellite television channel. SAT-7 PARS says it receives hundreds of letters and E-mails every week from Iranian viewers—many of them young—expressing interest in Christianity. David Harder, the communications manager at SAT-7 in Cyprus, says the channel tries to answer all questions, but it is a nonproselytizing entity. “Iranian Christians themselves often have very little access to teaching materials that can help them in their spiritual growth,” says Harder. “Satellite television provides a means through which Iranians, who have often never had the opportunity to enter a church or even to know a Christian, can learn more about this faith.”

Despite the Koran’s injunction that “there is no compulsion in religion,” issues of religious freedom have persisted since the Islamic revolution of 1979, and that is driving the young away from Islam, says Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a reformist cleric and former vice president of Iran. “If you force religion down people’s throats, it makes them less religious, not more.” Another analyst based in Tehran agrees but senses a western conspiracy in proselytizing through mass media. He blames satellite television channels for emotionally manipulating Iranian viewers into changing their religion. “Iranians are looking for a balm, and proselytizers are taking advantage of that,” he says. “There’s a vicious western plot to foment a wider cultural East-West war and demonize Islam in the process.”

Demonizing Christianity. Ironically, these days, a recent Iranian film, Jesus, the Spirit of God, is being accused of demonizing Christianity. It’s a new film on Jesus told from an Islamic perspective. Jesus, regarded as only a prophet, did not die on the cross and was not resurrected. The disciple Judas Iscariot is crucified in his place, according to the film. This premise is based on the teachings of the Koran and the Gospel of Barnabas, a book not included in the Christian Bible and in which the prophet Muhammad appears.

The $5 million film, funded by Iranian state broadcasting, is intended to promote a dialogue between Muslims and Christians, according to director Nader Talebzadeh. It received a tepid reception in theaters across Iran and will now be recycled as a 20-episode series on state-run national television this year.

Mona, a 24-year-old Assyrian Christian residing in more affluent northern Tehran, saw the film and said its “jaundiced” interpretation made her cringe. She’s not very religious, she says, though she acknowledges there is enough freedom to practice her faith because she was born into a Christian family. But she remains disillusioned with the fact that Islam pervades almost every aspect of normal life in Iran.

She says she was recently rejected for a job as a flight attendant with Air Iran, the state-run airline, because she hadn’t ever read the Koran. “Religion without the freedom to reject it is not a true religion,” she says in her living room, her head bereft of a scarf. “It makes life very claustrophobic.”

(This story was reported with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting in Washington.)

Arrested for Carrying Bible (Algeria)

An Algerian Christian detained five days for carrying a Bible and personal Bible study books was handed a 300-euro (US$460) fine and a one-year suspended prison sentence last week, an Algerian church leader said.

Last Tuesday (April 29) a court in Djilfa, 150 miles south of Algiers, charged the 33-year-old Muslim convert to Christianity with “printing, storing and distributing” illegal religious material. A written copy of the verdict has yet to be issued.

The Protestant, who requested anonymity for security reasons, told fellow Christians in his home city of Tiaret that police pressured him to return to Islam while in custody.

The conviction is the latest in a wave of detentions and court cases against Algeria’s Protestants and Catholics. Since January police and provincial officials have ordered the closure of up to half of the country’s 50 estimated Protestant congregations.

Officials in several instances have cited a February 2006 law governing the worship of non-Muslims. Clarified by subsequent decrees in 2007, the law restricts most religious meetings to approved places of worship and forbids any attempt to “shake the faith of a Muslim.”

On the morning of April 25, the Tiaret resident and eight-year convert to Christianity was stopped at a police roadblock in the vicinity of Djilfa while riding in a shared taxi. Officials took the convert into custody upon finding a Bible and several religious study books in his luggage.

A Christian from Tiaret told Compass that Djilfa police appeared to have previous knowledge of the Protestant’s Christian connections. Officers refused to let the convert call friends to let them know of his detention, naming a church member in Tiaret whom they claimed he would contact.

“We will call your family for you,” the officials said, according to the Christian source from Tiaret.

According to one Algerian human rights lawyer, police violated the convert’s rights by refusing him the telephone call.

“Any detained person has the right to call his family,” said the lawyer, who requested anonymity.

A leader from the Protestant Church of Algeria, an umbrella association for mainline and evangelical congregations, said that Christians remained unaware of the detainee’s location for several days.

Precarious Position

The Christian source in Tiaret said that Djilfa police verbally attacked the convert because of his faith during his five-day detention at city’s police station.

“They did not hit him, but they tried to convert him back to Islam,” he said.

Under Algerian law, police can detain a suspect up to 48 hours before bringing him before a state prosecutor, the human rights lawyer told Compass.

“It is not legal for them to hold him for five days,” said the lawyer, who clarified that any detention between 24 and 48 hours had to be approved by a state prosecutor.

After five days in Djilfa’s main police station, the Christian was brought before a state prosecutor and then a Djilfa judge. According to the convert, the judge convicted him of “printing, storing and distributing” illegal religious literature, though the charge remains uncertain until a written verdict is issued.

Before releasing him, the judge told the convert he would be given a 300 euro fine and a one-year suspended sentence.

According to the Tiaret Christian, the convert received the “printing” charge because he was traveling with a computer printer in his possession. The convert has yet to receive a written copy of the verdict, though observers said this was common in Algeria, as court verdicts are normally sent by mail following a ruling.

Because the sentence is suspended, the convert will only have to do jail time if convicted of another crime. But the Tiaret Christian said that the verdict constituted an ongoing threat to the Christian.

“A policeman could bring false accusations against him, that he gave one of them a Bible, and he would be thrown in jail,” the friend said.

Christians in Tiaret reported two separate instances in which undercover police officers pretended to be interested in Christianity and then detained Protestants for giving them Bibles.

Charges were thrown out for the first incident in March. In the second case a Tiaret court handed a Christian a two-year suspended sentence and a 100,000-dinar (US$1,540) fine on April 2. The written verdict was delivered on April 9.

At least five Christians from Tiaret have been detained or tried for Christian activities since January 2008.

According to unconfirmed reports, Tiaret police detained six more Christians today.

Christians constitute a tiny minority of Algeria’s population of 33 million. Catholics count several thousand congregants, mostly expatriates, while numbers for Protestants are less certain.

Conservative estimates place the number of Protestants at 10,000, though evangelism via satellite TV has reportedly led to a large number of isolated conversions unaccounted for in church attendance figures.

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