Rwanda closes over 6,000 churches in bid for more control over religious communities
Rwanda’s government has closed thousands of churches and dozens of mosques as it seeks to assert more control over a vibrant religious community whose sometimes makeshift operations have reportedly threatened the lives of followers. The Associated Press (AP) reports that President Paul Kagame said he was shocked by the high number of churches in the “small East African country. “700 churches in Kigali? Are these boreholes (deep wells) that give people water? I don’t think we have as many boreholes. Do we even have as many factories? This has been a mess!,” he said of houses of worship in the nation’s capital in March. we gathered that Kagame said Rwanda does not need so many houses of worship, claiming that such a high number is only fit for bigger, more developed economies that have the means to sustain them. The closures are however generating mixed reactions in Rwanda, where human rights groups have long accused Kagame’s government of clamping down on freedom of expression, which the president has denied. Six Pentecostal pastors who protested the church closures were allegedly arrested and accused of “illegal meetings with bad intentions. Rwanda’s government said churches that are being closed are those that failed to comply with building safety standards. The government said it is taking other steps to oversee the religious community in the largely Christian nation of 12 million people. Alexis Nkurunziza, the president of the private Rwanda Religious Leaders Forum said that there is a new proposed legislation which aims to regulate faith-based organizations separately from civil society organizations. He said suggestions from religious leaders soon will be forwarded to the Rwanda Law Reform Commission for scrutiny and later to parliament. The legislation is reportedly expected to be passed as the ruling party holds a majority of parliamentary seats. The new legislation would require pastors to have a theology degree before they start their own churches so that they teach correct doctrine. The aim is to reportedly regulate the Pentecostal churches that often spring up under leaders who claim to have received a call to preach. The majority of churches that have been closed are said to be small Pentecostal prayer houses, with some preachers suspected of growing rich off often impoverished followers. The authorities said some churches meet in tents or houses that cannot accommodate crowds and noise pollution from nighttime gatherings is a concern. Anastase Shyaka, the head of the Rwanda Governance Board that regulates faith-based organizations, told the AP: “The prayer houses were found in such poor physical conditions, and we are not targeting any religion. “We are closing prayer houses of all different denominations and asking them to meet existing health and safety standards for their followers. Local media in the capital have reported that over 6,000 churches have been closed so far across the country, but Shaka said the actual number was still being compiled. Shaka said that Rwanda’s government respects freedom of worship but protecting lives of people comes first, adding that churches which meet the required safety standards will be reopened. One new requirement for churches is the installation of a lightning rod after a lightning strike in March killed 16 worshippers and injured 140 at a Seventh-Day Adventist church in the country’s south. Mosques across Rwanda also have been reportedly affected. The leader of the country’s Muslim community, Mufti Sheikh Salim Hitimana, told AP that about 100 have been closed. “We are now trying to fix what the government told us to do,” he said. Some evangelical leaders said they support Rwanda’s crackdown, saying that protecting the lives of churchgoers is important and having qualified, trained leaders is necessary. “Government efforts to have churches build better structures are welcome to all of us,” said Esron Maniragaba, president of the Evangelical Free Church of Rwanda and a leader with the Evangelical Alliance of Rwanda. Some Rwandans also backed the government’s action adding that government authorities should supervise churches and take action against exploitative pastors. “Some pastors are motivated by greed and start churches to defraud their followers,” said Charles Murinzi, who attends an Anglican church in the capital. we previously reported that Chinese authorities in Central Henan province issued a warning forbidding any Christian gatherings in the area and placing Christians under house arrest. China Aid reported that Chinese officials were also tearing down couplet door decorations that use Christian language. According to an anonymous source in Shangqiu, Henan, Christians in the province were placed under house arrest without charge, with police officers watching their residence. The Christians were required to report where they are going every time they wish to leave the house.