Rwanda’s Relentless Drive to Secularize Claims 8,000 Churches

Rwandan church

More than 8,000 Rwandan churches have closed this year as the East African nation’s government makes clear its aggressive secular stance.

The Rwanda Governance Board put the new regulations in place at the beginning of the year claiming that the vibrant religious community’s sometimes makeshift operations have threatened the lives of followers.

The new regulations cover a variety of safety issues. For example, toilets must be a certain distance from the church entrance and all churches must have lightning-conductors.

But some of the regulations suggest government hostility toward faith groups. The new codes require church buildings to install a certain kind of canvas ceiling, even though that material carries a considerable fire hazard. And one church was told it needed to change its roof and rebuild one of the brick walls. The church is already financially strapped as a result of the government’s initial requirements.

Claims of government harassment appear to be supported by statements from President Paul Kagame. When Kagame was told earlier this year that the regulations had resulted in thousands of churches being closed including 700 in the nation’s capital, Kagame told the media, “700 churches in Kigali? Are these boreholes (deep wells) that give people water? I don’t think we have as many boreholes. Do we even have as many factories? This has been a mess!”

Some of the new regulations are not based on safety but simply government control. All pastors now need to have a theological degree from an accredited institution. And the law states that only institutions that also teach science and technology can teach theology, meaning that few of the theological institutions or Bible schools are regarded as valid.

Rwandan Churches Closing Rapidly

According to a report by Rwanda’s pro-government KT Press, more than 8,000 churches have been closed as a result of the regulations, and the number keeps growing.

“On checking which churches were included, we learned that all churches are suffering the same fate, and that even churches considered luxurious for local standards have had to close,” a local analyst, who wished to remain anonymous, told World Watch Monitor.

World Watch Monitor learned that in one village the church was closed while a wedding was ongoing. The couple and all the guests were simply told to leave the church during the service, and the church was closed.

“Another church was stopped from having services and other meetings (such as home groups) in a school hall as an alternative after all the churches in that parish had been closed. The church had timber instead of a metal door and window frames, and was told the roof also needed to be elevated ‘just a little.’”

The laws are being enforced even though they have not yet been approved officially. In most cases it is almost impossible for churches to make the required changes within the given time frame of 15 days.

Government Imposing Onerous Regulations on Rwandan Church

World Watch Monitor reports government has taken several steps that have hindered religious liberties in an effort to secularize.

  • Prayer meetings are no longer allowed in government institutions.
  • Words referring to the Christian faith have been removed from the preamble of the Constitution.
  • During the commemoration of the genocide, neither pastors nor priests (who used to play a prominent role in past commemoration events) can speak or preach anymore, unless the event is organized by a church.
  • Two Sundays per month, main roads are closed, meaning that many people cannot reach their church. Church attendance has declined as a result.
  • Many Rwanda Patriotic Front (the ruling political party) meetings and other activities that may be compulsory are arranged for Sundays.

The group also reports widespread fear among the nation’s pastors. Shortly after the new requirements began to be implemented, officials arrested six pastors accused of plotting to defy the government orders. The pastors have since been released.

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Bob Ditmer
Bob Ditmer has worked in Christian media for more than 20 years including positions with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries and Focus on the Family.

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