Rwandan Government Enforces Widespread Church Crackdown
09/26/2018 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – This year, authorities in Rwanda have closed down at least 7,000 churches, more than 700 of which were in the capital city of Kigali. The government began shutting down these churches in March 2018, after lightning struck a Seventh-day Adventist church that had not properly installed a government-mandated lightning rod. As a result of the incident, 16 people died. Following the incident, authorities claimed that they started inspecting churches to ensure they were safe and complied with health, safety, and noise regulations as mandated by the Rwandan government. According to the government, many of these churches did not meet the required standards.
President Paul Kagame was vocal in his support of the shutdowns, but was shocked by the number of churches. Kagame claimed that a nation as small as Rwanda did not need so many churches. He claimed that “such a high number is only fit for bigger, more developed economies that have the means to sustain them.” Outraged by this statement, church leaders organized a protest, which ultimately led to the arrest of six Pentecostal pastors.
While the government claims that they are shutting down the churches based on their physical condition or the excessive noise the they create, many have their doubts. An analyst, told World Watch Monitor, “On checking which churches were included (in closures), all churches are suffering the same fate, and … even churches considered luxurious for local standards have had to close.”
It appears that the majority of the churches closing are Protestant churches that vary regarding their size and building conditions. However, Rwanda lacks freedom of press, making it challenging to obtain accurate news regarding exactly which churches have been shut down and why. After the six Pentecostal pastors were arrested, few have been willing to speak on the subject, fearing government backlash.
Human rights activists have long accused President Kagame and the Rwandan government of denying citizens their rights and these reports only show further proof of the government clamping down on its citizens.
“[Some] churches were told what to fix. But others were simply told to close and that is all.”
Gregg Schoof, a pastor in Rwanda, told International Christian Concern (ICC) that the closure of churches is detrimental to Rwandan Christians, but is being “done in a surprisingly subtle way.” He shared that his church was one of the many that had been closed. He stated that his church has been meeting in a school building for over 15 years, when he was suddenly given a one-day notice to stop having church in the building.
The pastor said that no one could tell him why it was being closed other than the fact that it did not meet the government-mandated safety standards. He tried to appeal the closure, but there was no discussion or appeal process. The pastor claimed that, although the church is forbidden from meeting there, the building is still being used for other purposes, such as school, weddings, and even government meetings.
The pastor went on to say that some “churches were told what to fix. But others were simply told to close and that is all.” In his case, he was told there was nothing he could do.
While the government’s intentions are unclear, Greg stated that “it seems they just want to close all the small, start-up churches.” He expressed that the government claims they have not yet heard a single complaint from any of the churches that were closed. He said it is clear that “people are afraid to speak openly here.” He went on to state that the government claims that some church leaders are praising the government for closing down the churches.
Though it is unclear whether the government’s claim that these closures are due to safety violations is valid, it is clear that this is not the right way to address such issues. Since many of these churches belong to small, poor villages, they may not be able to meet these strict standards and that should not prevent them from having a place of worship. The government must also refrain from limiting the number of churches that their people have. In time, we will be able to determine if this crackdown was done to protect the people or merely to control them.
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