Rwanda’s government has made it a priority to close thousands of churches and dozens of mosques as a way to assert more control on the religious community. Authorities say the churches and mosques’ often makeshift operations have threatened the lives of followers.

At the March National Leadership retreat in Gabiro, President Paul Kagame expressed his concerns saying he was shocked by the high number of churches in the small country. “700 churches in Kigali?” he said of houses of worship. “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!”

The closures have been met with mixed reactions as human rights groups have long accused President Kagame’s government of clamping down on freedom of expression. However, the government has defended the move explaining that aside from safety it also aims to tighten rules on registration and the functions of churches thus reducing the numerous fraud cases against religious leaders who take advantage of their impoverished followers.

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Anastase Shyaka, the head of the Rwanda Governance Board that regulates faith-based organisations said in a statement that, “Prayer houses were found in such poor physical conditions, and we are not targeting any religion. We are closing prayer houses of all different denominations and asking them to meet existing health and safety standards for their followers.”

Supporting legislation

The President of the private Rwanda Religious Leaders Forum, Alexis Nkurunziza said in a  separate statement that, there is proposed legislation which aims to regulate faith-based organisations separately from civil society organisations.

Rwamagana Church in Rwanda photo credit Wikimedia Commons

The existing law on civil society organisations permit Rwandans to open churches and register after a period of months and doesn’t require pastors to go through any training. By contrast this new legislation would require pastors and church leaders to have degrees in theology to ensure they not only teach the proper doctrine but also minimise the number of hacks who claim to have received a calling to deliver the word.

Another requirement for churches is the installation of lightning rods following a lightning accident earlier this year that killed 16 worshipers and injured 140 at a Seventh – Day Adventist church in the country’s southern region. Houses of worship must also have government certification that building requirements such as adequate plumbing and parking have been met.

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Justus Kangwagye, a Rwanda Governance Board official who oversees faith-based organisations, said to Christianity today that the government is not trying to permanently close the churches but is merely doing its due diligence. “Freedom of worship does not mean you keep churchgoers in a substandard church that is likely to fall,” he said.

Across religions

Mosques across Rwanda have also been affected by closures. Mufti Sheikh Salim Hitimana, the leader of the country’s Muslim community said that approximately 100 mosques have been closed.

“We are now trying to fix what the Government told us to do,” he said to AP.