The Recent Decision To Close 700 Churches Is An Erosion Of Religious Freedom
Religious institutions can provide a power counter to autocratic governments. The ability to organize diverse communities and use the power of faith has a long history of being a point of opposition. The Civil Rights Movements in America, Catholic priests combating dictators in South America, and Christian groups fighting against the Soviet Union are just some of the most recent examples. This history may be what explains the recent actions of the Rwandan government against religious institutions.
The Rwandan government has been clamping down on religious leaders and churches. Over 700 churches and 100 mosques have been ordered to close. The government has arrested six pastors for “illegal meetings with bad intentions.” This is in direct contradiction to Rwandan law that states that there can be no interference with the freedom of worship.
The Rwandan government is arguing that there needs to be more regulation of religion. That many of these churches are designed to steal money and commit sexual abuse. Their argument has some basis in facts. There are numerous examples in Africa of shoddy construction work on churches that have collapsed killing dozens. There are also numerous examples of church leaders being involved in sex scandals. But Rwanda has taken some of the most extensive steps against religion.
Why is that?
Part of the answer is revealed in the churches targeted. Most of them are of the Pentecostal faith. This denomination involves claims of preachers performing miracles and creating near cult-of-personality worship by their followers. The majority of the country is Christian, with members being some of the most devout in the region.
Having charismatic leaders with strong bases could be a direct challenge to Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda. Kagame is known for his dictatorial tendencies: censoring fundamental human rights and engaging in extrajudicial killings of rivals, even after they have fled the country.
Given that the churches were banned, rather than given a chance to solve the complaints made by the government, this seems to be the likely reason.
Religious leaders inside the country have protested the decision, but clear steps of opposition have not yet emerged.