Did the government of Maldives ban Christmas?

We came across the following post in a Singapore-based channel with over 4,200 members on the social messaging app Telegram:

We also found similar content on the video-sharing website YouTube:

The posts suggested that Christmas celebrations in Maldives had been banned by the government. The Telegram post, which itself incorporated a screenshot of a post on X (formerly Twitter), included what appeared to be an official announcement made in a foreign language. The X post had received over 96,000 views and been reposted over 1,700 times.

A Police Advisory and Warning

We traced the image in the X post to the verified official account of the Maldives Police Service, where it had been posted on 24 December.

In the caption, translated to English from Dhivehi (the national language of Maldives), the police described the message in the image as a statement ‘regarding the advice not to hold activities to celebrate Christmas in residential areas in Sri Lanka (likely a mistranslation from Maldives by Google’s translation service)’.

Google’s translation tools were unable to provide translation for images in the Dhivehi language. As such, we sourced regional media reports to determine the content of the statement in the image attached in the post.

According to the Maldivian news site The Edition, the statement said, ‘No activities will be held in residential islands to celebrate Christmas, and action will be taken against those who conduct such activities’.

Another news outlet, AONews, also relayed the statement in similar language, adding that ‘such activities (celebrating Christmas) are prohibited by the laws and regulations of the Maldives’.

However, when we looked up this news on the official websites of the Maldivian Police Service, the Presidential Office, the Government and the Public Media Service, we did not find any news that a new law prohibiting the celebration of Christmas had been implemented, and there were no such reports on international media either.

Old Laws, Old News

While searching for information on a ban on Christmas in Maldives, we found an old news report from 2015 that said Maldives had ‘banned Christmas celebrations at guesthouses’.

The article, written in the Maldives Independent, reported that the government had said the practice was ‘contrary to Islam and Maldivian culture’, and that ‘celebrating Christmas in any inhabited island is not allowed under Maldivian law’.

We found a news report that said Sphinx-shaped statues intended as decorations for Christmas had been removed in 2017 from a Four Seasons Resort. Another report from 2020 depicted a Christmas tree being seized from a beach hotel by police under a court order.

Such restrictions appear to have been in place even prior to 2015. A 2011 US State Department report on international religious freedoms stated that non-Muslim foreign residents were allowed to practise religious beliefs ‘only if they did so privately and do not encourage local citizens to participate’.

The report also noted that the importation of foreign religious statues was prohibited. The sale of religious items, such as Christmas cards was ‘restricted to the resort islands patronised by foreign tourists’.

An updated version of the report in 2022 noted that Maldivian law states that ‘both the government and the people must protect religious unity, and propagation of any religion other than Islam is a criminal offense’.

These sources suggest that restrictions on religious practices and celebrations outside of local Islamic traditions have long been present, and that these restrictions are not solely targeted at Christmas celebrations.

Different Rules for Tourist Resort Islands

While at first glance the news of a ban seems accurate, albeit outdated, we found that Christmas celebrations in fact continue to be held in tourist resort islands across the Maldives. The apparent contradiction between the continuing celebrations and the ban is explained by how the Maldivian tourist industry is structured.

The Maldives is made up of over 1,000 islands, and only some of these are islands inhabited by the local residents, or otherwise known as ‘public’ islands. Many are not inhabited by locals, but are instead occupied by private tourist resorts.

Such private resorts were once the only places for visitors to the Maldives to stay. However, Maldives allowed tourism businesses to open on local islands as well from 2009. Local tourist lodgings were described as ‘guesthouses’ in contrast to the private ‘resorts’, with the first guesthouses opening in 2010.

Unlike the private island resorts, guesthouses are subject to local laws. On local islands, alcohol is prohibited, and wearing revealing clothing on the local islands is only allowed at the designated ‘bikini beaches’.

These restrictions are not imposed on the resorts, which regularly hold Christmas parties with banquets, celebrations and decorations. We found numerous posts on the website of the national tourist office describing the festivities at island resorts, which included dinner buffets, visits from Santa, cocktail parties, gift opening, and Christmas carols.

Misrepresented Statement

When considering the tourism model of the Maldives, and how Christmas continues to be celebrated in private tourist resorts, it becomes clear that the Telegram post is misleading in nature.

The post suggests the ban on Christmas is a recent development, and does not provide any context that indicates the restrictions are limited to local islands.

In addition, the emphasis that the ban was implemented for religious reasons and the criticism of ‘secular-liberals’ for not speaking out against it suggests that the author of the post is misrepresenting the Maldives police’s statement for political reasons.

While there are factual elements to the post—namely that there is a ban on Christmas celebrations on local islands and guesthouses, we rate this claim as mostly false due to the lack of context distinguishing local and private resort islands, as well as suggestions of the ban being recent.

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