Maldives atheist who felt persecuted 'hangs himself'

The Grand Friday Mosque in the Maldives' capital of Male in October 2007  It is compulsory for citizens of the Maldives to be Sunni Muslims

A man in the Indian Ocean island state of the Maldives has died, apparently by suicide, after complaining of being victimised for not being a Muslim.

Ismail Mohamed Didi, 25, had admitted being an atheist and had sought political asylum abroad.

He was found on Tuesday hanging at his workplace - the air traffic control tower at the international airport in the capital, Male.

It is compulsory for citizens of the Maldives to be Sunni Muslims.

Despite the rigidity of its religious laws, the Maldives was recently elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council.

A Maldivian website, Minivan News, printed what it said was a recent e-mail from Didi in which he said he was an atheist.

Friends 'ignored him'

He asked a foreign charity to help him seek asylum in Britain because, he said, "there is no place for non-Muslim Maldivians in this society".

He said his colleagues had spread word of his apostasy and that his closest friends would no longer meet him.

He was afraid for his life and knew no-one in the country who could help him, he added.

The website said his employer at the airport had launched an investigation into his lack of belief and referred him to the Ministry of Islamic Affairs.

It quoted one colleague as alleging that Didi had "openly insulted God".

The Maldives' constitution demands that all its citizens be Muslim, and religious office-holders regularly stress the unacceptability of other faiths being accepted or propagated.

In May, a 37-year-old Maldivian man professed to be non-Muslim at a public meeting with a visiting Indian preacher, Zakir Naik.

An NGO, the Islamic Foundation of the Maldives, declared that if he did not repent he should be sentenced to death.

Three days later the man went on television, recanted and asked for forgiveness.

Sources in the country say a small but growing number of its people do question their faith, but rarely in a public way.

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