Pastors prey on the poor

Mainstream churches in Namibia feel that the government should follow the example of Rwanda, which is debating a new law regulating the forming of religious groupings.

30 April 2018 | Cultural

The spotlight will be firmly focused on Pentecostal churches in Namibia if the Council of Churches in Namibia has anything to say about the matter.

Developments in Rwanda, where multiple religious organisations were banned and regulations introduced, have made the council revisit the issue for the need for greater regulation of churches in the country.

The plea was made by CCN secretary-general Ludwig Beukes, who said certain sects exploited people.

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, authorities say, have threatened the lives of followers. Only pastors with a theology degree are permitted to operate churches.

Commenting on the developments in Rwanda, Beukes said he was not aware of that country's laws but he believed the reasons that led to its government's decision to close the religious organisations were very close to Namibia's.

“If you do something like that here, it would raise a lot of questions but it looks like it is the same problem here. There is an exploitation of people by these so-called prosperity gospel organisations,” said Beukes.

He pointed out, however, that the Namibian constitution guarantees the right of freedom of association, leaving people free to choose their religious affiliation. A unit within a ministry specifically dedicated to registering religious organisations would be a great benefit, Beukes believed.

“I think the government must have a unit where churches can be registered and where there are basic requirements that they need to adhere to,” said Beukes.

According to him, many church organisations are registered as Section 21 not-for-profit organisations with the trade ministry.

“It is the only alternative, otherwise these churches must register as welfare organisations,” Beukes said.

According to him, it is also convenient for the heads of these organisations to use the umbrella term “church”.

This, he said, made it necessary for the government to look into regulation. Beukes cautioned, though, that a broad consultative process would be needed before introducing church regulation.

“It is time for the church to look into regulation but we would not want politicians to prescribe what churches will preach,” said Beukes.

Beukes believes that the so-called “prosperity churches” are making more money than shebeens because they prey on people's desperation.

Police agree

Community policing officer Christina Fonseca said she fully supported Rwanda's crackdown on fly-by-night religious organisations.

“I will support this 100% because of what we are witnessing. People are changing their names because a pastor said so, people do not talk to their own family members because of what a pastor said, people go extended periods without eating because of what a pastor said … this is nonsense,” said Fonseca.

She added that she had seen many “unpleasant things” some religious organisations had asked from their congregants.

“People sign over their houses and cars and quit their jobs,” she said.

The other worrying factor for Fonseca is that these organisations are registered as Section 21 organisations, which raises the question of what they do with the money collected from congregants.

She also questioned whether these self-appointed pastors had any theological training.

Law Reform and Development Commission chairperson Yvonne Dausab said the regulation of religious organisations had been looked at, but a position paper would not be immediately available.

The Rwandan example

In Rwanda, President Paul Kagame said he was shocked by the high number of churches in the small East African country.

The closures elicited 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 arrested and accused of “illegal meetings with bad intentions,” and since then other critics have refused to discuss the issue, The Associated Press reported.

The proposed legislation aimed to regulate faith-based organisations separately from civil society organisations, said Alexis Nkurunziza, president of the private Rwanda Religious Leaders Forum.

Suggestions from religious leaders soon will be forwarded to the Rwanda Law Reform Commission for scrutiny and later to parliament, he said.

The legislation is 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, said those familiar with the discussions.

The aim is to regulate Pentecostal churches that often spring up under leaders who claim to have received a call to preach. Not everyone, however, has the money for such a degree, some observers have said.

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. Some churches meet in tents or houses that cannot accommodate crowds and noise pollution from night-time gatherings is a concern, authorities said.

Mosques across Rwanda also have been affected. About 100 have been closed, the leader of the country's Muslim community, Mufti Sheikh Salim Hitimana, told The Associated Press.


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