Imagine being at a wedding when police arrive, shut down the service and disperse the congregation. This is happening in Rwanda. A new report by the pro government KT Press in Rwanda states that over 8,000 churches have been closed due to new regulations in the African nation. New laws mean the government is cracking down on church buildings that fail to meet regulations, but many say this is just an excuse.
“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. One congregation’s members have to walk 20km to attend church in a neighbouring community.
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.
Phil Clark from SOAS, University of London, told the German newspaper Deutsche Welle that “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.
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.
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