Uganda: Unease As Government Seeks to Regulate Churches

(file photo).
18 November 2019

For the exponents of the proposed policy, there is an urgent need to regulate faith-based organisations to nip in the bud rogue pastors who are purveyors of a false gospel and steal from their flock by faking miracles.

But for those against it postulate that religion is sacrosanct and is a jurisdiction that cannot be regulated by the State. Currently, government is gathering views, which will form the draft policy.

If Cabinet adopts the policy, districts will have religious and faith-based organisation boards. They shall be composed of three political leaders and four technical officers. The committee shall have powers to co-opt technical officers to deal with specific issues. Among those who will sit on the committee are the resident district commissioner, the district internal security officer and representatives of faith-based organisations.

The framers of the policy argue that if left unfettered, religion can morph into a potent form of fanaticism.

Citing Uganda's troubled past, unregulated religion has offered breeding grounds for cults such as Joseph Kibwetere's where the latter and his acolytes on March 17, 2000 locked believers in a church in Kanungu District that was incinerated in a fire, resulting in the death of more than 700 people. Religion, according to those behind the policy, has played a role in fanning rebellions, including the Allied Democratic Forces, an offshoot of the Tabliq sect, which waged a war against Uganda in the late 1990s in an attempt to impose sharia law.

The exponents of the policy claim the Alice Lakwena and Joseph Kony rebellions bear the hallmarks of religious fanaticism.

Mr Joseph Kabuleta, who is a pastor with the Watchman ministries, has already tested the wrath of the State. In August, he was detained on charges of offensive communication under Section 25 of the Computer Misuse Act.

He regained his freedom four days after his arrest. Beyond the narrow traditional space, which often recedes at the whims and fancies of the regime, cyber space has handed a potent weapon to those with the craft to take on the State on subjects deemed uncomfortable to debate in the public

This is what Mr Kabuleta, a former sports journalist, exploited. He believes that the policy will be selectively enforced to muzzle critical voices.

'Muzzling critical voices'

"You cannot separate fanaticism from religion. It is like saying you are trying to separate fanaticism from sport. You can only say we do not want fanatics to break the law. Religion without fanaticism is dead, not everybody is going to go down that path some people actually despise it," Mr Kabuleta says.

Pastor Michael Kyazze of Omega Healing Centre says crime should be a primary role of intelligence and penalised under Uganda's penal laws.

"In every society, there are people who are evil. That is the work of intelligence and policy. They are endowed with laws and they are given tools and they trained to sniff out any criminals. So I don't think that warrants a religious policy," Pastor Kyazze argues. Those against the policy accuse the State of attempting to regulate the freedom of worship, which is an inherent right.

"We renounce the spirit and nature of what government is proposing. In our bird eye's view, what we see is government trying to become supervisor and overseer of religious faiths. We are seeing government mixing politics with religion; we are seeing government taking over the ordination process and verification of what we believe; what we believe is a matter of choice and freedom to worship," Pastor Kyazze says.

Mr Simon Ssenyonga of Zoe Ministries says the Ethics ministry wants to target the born-again movement, which he says is discriminatory.

"The born again church is not exactly structural as Islam or the Catholics or the Anglicans. There is no perpetual head who is chosen by a particular council," he says.

"It intends to push the born-again into some structurally existent framework, which is recognised by the law and as such, they can then be muzzled by the government," Mr Ssenyonga adds. For long, the Pentecostal church has been a favourable constituency of the regime.

In the clientele-patronage politics, pliant Pentecostal pastors have offered glowing prophesies in favour of the NRM and its leaders.

To return the favour, the State has offered the leaders several perks, including security protection and posh vehicles. Some of the Pentecostal pastors involved in unethical practice and crimes have received a slap on the wrist.

Rising numbers

The Pentecostal church's clout extends to the seat of power that some of its leaders influence job appointments and others are given coveted roles in government.

As its influence grows, so are the numbers. In the last population census, the Pentecostal church registered the biggest growth between the years of 2002 to 2014. It grew from 4.6 per cent to 11.1 per cent.

For instance, between 2002 and 2014, the numbers of the Catholic Church, which is the largest denomination, fell from 41.6 per cent to 39.3 per cent. The Anglican Church, the second largest denomination, registered a decline from 36.7 per cent to 32 per cent while the Muslim faith grew slightly from 12.4 per cent to 13.7 per cent.

One of the accusations against the Pentecostal church is that it has grown at the expense of mainstream faith-based organisations because it sells the prosperity gospel anchored on fake miracles to its congregation.

So why had the State been reluctant to stamp out these rogue pastors in the past?

"These laws are put there to be selectively applied on people who seem to have independent minds, especially those who are going against the grain of the regime. When pastors seemed to be behind the regime, nobody was interested in these things; now that there so many pastors, evangelists who are independent-minded and are speaking the truth, then the threat comes in," Mr Kabuleta says.

There are fears that with the rise of a few emboldened pastors, who preach a message of fire and brimstone at the pulpit, the State may gradually begin to lose a firm grip on the Pentecostal church.

The State is now relying on laws and the proposed policy to effectively bring the Pentecostal church under its clutches, opines Mr Ssenyonga.

"The fear for the super-natural is what they [State] can't explain. The best thing you can do is to curtail them or unfairly limit them and then subsequently derogate the freedom of worship," he adds.

Pentecostal churches have previously been registered under the Trustees Incorporation Act and supervised by the Internal Affairs and Justice ministries.

Government has also recommended that faith-based organisations, which until now have been obliged to register as NGOs, shall not fall under the ambit of the 2010 NGO Policy. Many of the faith-based outfits, which were registered under the NGO Act prior to the establishment of the policy, have been deregistered.

If the policy is adopted, churches will be placed under the docket of the Ethics ministry.

Ethical concerns

Mr Yusuf Sserunkuma, a researcher, says there is general concern in the public about the unethical conduct of pastors that has given the regime a basis to regulate churches.

"One could argue that government has registered this concern and has now responded. There should be regulations and I think that is the spirit of the policy. The Church and the State have often heard a difficult relationship. The Church has the potential to mobilise a sizeable mass that could stand up against the government," Mr Sserunkuma says.

He, however, says faith-based organisations cannot mobilise an insurrection because the mainstream church is an ally of government.

The leading exponent of this campaign, Rev Fr Simon Lokodo, the Ethics minister, says the policy will largely target churches that are keen on manipulating their flock.

He commends the traditional religious outfits, including the Islamic, Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox faiths, of offering the moral impetus and developing society.

"Government always commends the good work done by churches. However, of late complaints from the population are that not all pastors are doing genuine work. There is a lot of extortion, exploitation and bad guidance," Fr Lokodo says.

He adds: "They tell their faithful 'go and sell everything you have and God will bless you', they tell people not to receive scientific treatment for their sickness and that God will do everything. These are the wrong elements we want to check, they are not providing any spiritual guidance; if anything, they are destroying and causing mayhem."

However, Mr Kabuleta argues that "growth is achieved through processes, excesses. Even our democracy is still growing. There are so many things that happen here that for instance would not happen in a purely democratic society."

Fr Lokodo emphasises the need for theological training. "How do you go to a classroom and begin to teach children if you have not been a teacher yourself? How do you go to hospital and start operating people when you have never gone to school to learn how to offer medical services?" he says.

Mr Patrick Ndyanabo, who works with the Full Gospel Churches of Uganda, says theological training is important.

"Well, the church has two sectors, the first one is the organisation sector of the church where God calls people to ministry, but it also has another arm called church organisation, we need to be trained, that does not negate the fact that people are called by God. This [training] eliminates underhand methods that can hurt congregation."

But Pastor Kyazze says training is based on the creed of a faith-based organisation.

"Traditional practices rely on direct spiritual contacts, they don't run schools. They don't run universities. How are you going to train those? If the document is discriminatory and it's targeting say the Pentecostal, then they are talking about the Pentecostal doctrine," he says.

Pastor Kyazze adds: "We believe that the calling [to ministry] comes first and then the training later. St Peter, St Paul were trained on the job."

The draft policy also recognises self-regulation. The director for religious Affairs in the Ethics ministry, Rev Aaron Mwesigye, says the policy is not meant to enforce a harsh regulation and police faith-based organisations but will largely set guidelines for effective operation.

"There is no policy as we talk; there is no Bill, there is an ongoing consultation process. we don't have the draft policy, stakeholders are generating ideas in policy, including Anglicans, Catholics, Muslims and mainstream Pentecostal churches are not complaining, they pointed out gaps," Rev Mwesigye says.

But Mr Ssenyonga says the policy is a choreographed ploy to bring some leaders of faith-based organisations to tow 'the correct line.' He cited a recent incident where the Criminal Intelligence and Investigations Directorate accused Pastor Elvis Mbonye for decampaigning immunisation, which Mr Ssenyonga says were trumped-up charges.

What thelaw says

One of the key contestations is about the provisions under chapter four of the Constitution. Whereas there is the right to freedom of worship, there is a limitation in article 43 of the Constitution.

However, this limitation is subjected to a test that provides that any exemption to the rights and freedoms must demonstrably be justified under a free and democratic society.

The draft policy says it is informed by other laws that are applicable in the work, coordination and regulation of RFOs and they include the Anti-Money Laundering Act, the Anti-Corruption Act, the Marriage Act, the Public Order Management Act, as well as all other relevant sectoral policies.

Some view the policy as an attempt by the regime to curtail freedoms through licensing the media, film, and NGO sectors.

"Government seeks to cherry-pick and as long as you are saying palatable things, you are in their good books and you will remain registered. It's a carrot and stick," Mr Ssenyonga said.

Mr Kabuleta suggests that "laws should apply across board. We can't be in a position where government thinks that it's the controller of what is good and bad doctrine."

The State and the church are strange bedfellows.

"The better model is in America where Benjamin Franklin said separation of church and State and, therefore, the State cannot sanction any religion and there is a clear separation, I think that is the model we should be following. When religion and politics merge, it [leads] to the death of one of them," Mr Kabuleta says.


Kanungu massacre: Citing Uganda's troubled past, unregulated religion has offered breeding grounds for cults such as Joseph Kibwetere's where the latter and his acolytes on March 17, 2000 locked believers in a church in Kanungu District that was incinerated in a fire, resulting in the death of more than 700 people.

Rebellions: Religion, according to those behind the policy, has played a role in fanning rebellions, including the Allied Democratic Forces, an offshoot of the Tabliq sect, which waged a war against Uganda in the late 1990s in an attempt to impose sharia law.

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