It should have been a day of celebration. But the wedding in the village church in Rwanda came to an abrupt end, when, in the middle of the celebrations, local government representatives marched in and stopped the service. The couple and all the guests were ordered to leave. The government had decided that the church was to be closed.
This is just one story among thousands – over 8,000 in fact. According to a report by Rwanda’s pro-government KT Press, more than 8,000 churches have now been closed, and the number is growing every day.
The ostensible reason is that the Rwanda Governance Board is clamping down on churches which it says fail to meet building regulations laid down at the beginning of the year. But many people believe that a more sinister agenda at work: they claim that the church closures are part of a systematic, aggressive programme of secularisation.
“On checking which churches were included, we learned that all churches are suffering the same fate, and that even churches considered luxurious by local standards have had to close,” said a local source, who wished to remain anonymous. “In one district authorities banned all meetings of a closed church, and congregants are not even allowed to meet in home groups.”
In most cases it is almost impossible for churches to make the required changes within the given time frame of 15 days. But even those churches which try to comply with the regulations find themselves in trouble – because new regulations are being added all the time.
One church which had already borrowed money in order to meet the initial requirements, was then told that it needed to change its roof and rebuild one of the brick walls. Another church which thought it had complied with the regulations suddenly discovered that their toilets were too close to the entrance.
One congregation now meets in a church building in another neighbourhood. Another congregation’s members have to walk 20km to attend church in a neighbouring community.
Politically influenced church closures
It seems clear that the problem is not so much the buildings themselves, but the nature of the the churches. Many of the closed churches are small Pentecostal congregations, a denomination that has grown rapidly in Rwanda and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa. “Pentecostalism is growing exponentially,” Phil Clark from SOAS, University of London, told the German newspaper Deutsche Welle. “The church closures are much more politically influenced than the government says. It signals to the churches that they are under observation, just like other social organisations in Rwanda. I take that as a clear warning.”
Human rights groups have long criticised the Rwandan government for clamping down on freedom of expression. This clamp down on churches seems to be an extension of that.
The government is also clamping down on pastors and theological education. All pastors now need to have a theological degree from an officially accredited institute. What’s more, another new law states that only institutions that also teach science and technology can teach theology, meaning that few of the many (often highly regarded) theological institutions or Bible schools are regarded as valid.
Understandably, there is a high level of anxiety among church leaders. Shortly after the new requirements began to be implemented, officials arrested six pastors accused of plotting to defy the government orders. Although the pastors have since been released, a senior church leader explained that the arrest served as a stern warning to others to not resist the new laws.
- That churches would have the financial resources to at least try and meet the requirements
- For wisdom and courage for Christians in how to engage the government over these requirements
- For Christians and churches to live out clear testimonies for Christ in the midst of these challenges
- That Rwanda’s international trade partners would not turn a blind eye to the obvious infringement on religious rights taking place.
Source: World Watch Monitor