Approximately 700 Churches have been shut down by the Rwandan government for failing to comply with noise restrictions. Most of those closed by officials were small Pentecostal congregations located in Nairobi, but one mosque was also ordered to stop hosting services.
There has been an increase in charismatic individuals starting up small churches, claiming the ability to perform miracles. Citing the dangers of this type of practice, a new law now requires all preachers must have theological training before opening a church.
Some church premises reportedly exposed worshippers to unnecessary risks and could “cause danger to those worshipping,” according to government official Justus Kangwagye, as reported by the BBC. Kangwagye told the BBC’s Focus on Africa that the Churches were required to meet “modest standards” with regards to training and noise limits.
In an announcement on Feb 21, the Rwanda Governance Board said it was seeking to review the original governing laws for Churches due to “irregularities” in the way various congregations functioned.
“Some churches conduct their worship services in shoddy and unclean structures; to the detriment of people’s health and safety. Cases of noise pollution have also been reported while some operate without the required operation permits,” said Prof Anastase Shyaka.
She added: “Some Churches are torn apart by internal wrangles, this should not continue. If we are Christians, where we worship must meet standards showing respect for God.”
Despite the sudden closures, Lutheran Bishop Evariste Bugabo insisted that the closure order “does not target any denomination.”
“It is a matter of hygiene and security for the church members,” he said, as reported by Religion News Service. “While churches have mushroomed too quickly in Rwanda, those that have met the requirements are safe.”
“Are these boreholes that give people water?” President Paul Kagame in a critical remark about the number of churches in the city. “I don’t think we have as many boreholes. Do we even have as many factories? This has been a mess,” he added.
Rwandan international development David Himbara argued that Kagame is keeping a tight grip on religious freedoms in the East African nation.
“Kagame tightly controls the media, political parties, and civil society at large,” Himbara wrote at Medium. “The churches constituted the last open space. Kagame knows this. The localized community of churches offered a slight space for daring to imagine and talk about change.”
Himbara expanded on the vital importance of Rwanda’s small congregations.
“In Rwanda’s context, churches meet their members’ spiritual, emotional and physical needs in these troubling times under Kagame’s dictatorial and traumatizing regime. Under the Kagame regime, many Rwandan churchgoers are struggling to make ends meet in their everyday lives. They are poor, unemployed or earn exceedingly low wages. Irrespective of church size, each Rwandan church provides some meaning, counselling, and outreach services to its members.”
While Kagame cited “hygiene” concerns in the running of the Nairobi churches, Himbara believes something else is at play here.
“The hygiene justification for closing churches is bogus,” he wrote. “The entire Kigali City is unhygienic — with open sewers running through homes and neighborhoods. A city of over one million, Kigali does not have a sewage system. There is no treatment plant — raw sewage is dumped into the national and regional water systems.”
“The real reason Kagame shut down Rwandan churches is fear and paranoia,” Himbara added, explaining:
“Kagame tightly controls the media, political parties, and civil society at large. The churches constituted the last open space. Kagame knows this. The localized community of churches offered a slight space for daring to imagine and talk about change. What mattered most was that these churches were willing to open their doors to the hurting and to the broken within their communities. The churchgoers sang and praised God who they believe will set things rights. In Kagame’s Rwanda that is full of poverty, division, and oppression, it makes perfect sense that indeed thousands of people flock to churches without hesitation.”
“Kagame, churches in Rwanda are not a mess. Far from it. They represent hope. I put it to you that the reason you closed Rwandan churches is not hygiene but fear of words and thoughts. To paraphrase Churchill, a little mouse of thought appears in the room, and even with your mightiest military, you are thrown into panic. Your paranoia is the real reason for your cowardly closure of Rwandan churches.”
Authorities have also arrested several pastors during the crackdown. The well-known Bishop Innocent Rugagi of Redeemed Gospel Church, Apostle Charles Rwandamura of the United Christian Church (UCC) and Pastor Fred Nyamurangwa of Celpar Church were all taken into custody for failing to comply with the new restrictions put upon their congregations, as reported by KR Press.
Rev. Emmanuel Ntambara, Pastor James Dura and Pastor Emmanuel Kalisa Shyaka were also detained. Rwandan police spokesman Theos Badege told news agency AFP on Tuesday the six Pentecostal preachers “conducted illegal meetings with bad intentions aimed at calling for the directives to be defied.”
“After the suspension of churches that did not meet required standards, some church leaders began illegal meetings intended to defy and obstruct the directive,” he added.
“Police began investigations to find the masterminds behind this illegal act.”