Why has Rwanda closed 8,000 Christian churches?

Headlines in Western media saying an African country has closed 8,000 churches are always going to make Christians sit up and take notice. There are so many stories of the church under pressure, and many of them are true – Christians are the most persecuted religious group in the world.

In Rwanda, though, where this story comes from, it's not quite that simple. It's true that the government has closed 8,000 churches – but why, and what do the Christians who live there think about it?

The government of President Paul Kagame has closed 8,000 churches on health and safety grounds.Reuters

Forever shadowed by the 1994 genocide in which around 800,000 Tutsis were murdered by their neighbours after a years-long media campaign to demonise them, Rwanda is seen today as an African success story. Its economy has rebounded, and a process of healing and reconciliation has been held up as a model for others. All this has been under the leadership of its president, Paul Kagame, whose achievements have caused outside observers to be tolerant of his tendency to disregard democracy when it suits him. The government is in a position of enormous power in what's effectively a one-party state, and it's determined to continue progress towards its 'Vision 2020' goals, ambitious targets for improvements in education, infrastructure, healthcare, agriculture and governance.

Part of Rwanda's vision for the future involves a reform of the churches. Around 95 per cent of Rwandans are believers, many of them Roman Catholics. But churches suffer from untrained leadership and poor accountability, while many buildings are in a poor state of repair. At the other end of the scale, pastors are accused of enriching themselves and living lifestyles far beyond the reach of their congregations, who ultimately pay for them.

Kagame himself has declared the high number of congregations – 700 in the capital Kigali – to be 'a mess' and said he wants to reduce them. His government has used its powers to enforce a draconian buildings code, closing down churches accused of failing to comply with health, safety and noise regulations. Of the 8,000 churches that have been closed, four in 10 belong to the country's 3,300-strong network of Pentecostal churches.

On July 27, Rwanda's parliament passed a further law requiring pastors to have a theological degree from an accredited school. It also prohibits church leaders from ordering lengthy periods of fasting, and requires churches to disclose their sources of funding – a key weapon against corruption.

A government statement said: 'These closures do not infringe on freedom to worship, but rather address the alarming proliferation of places of worship in dilapidated and unhygienic conditions, as well as troubling behaviour by unscrupulous individuals masquerading as religious leaders.

'The latter have, among other abuses, defrauded innocent followers, broadcast insults against women and other religions, and forced followers to fast to the point of death from starvation.'

There has been some pushback. After 700 churches were closed earlier this year, six pastors were arrested for allegedly planning a campaign of resistance. But on the whole, the leaders of Rwanda's major denominations are surprisingly sympathetic. Rwanda's Anglican primate, Archbishop Laurent Mbanda, a member of the Interfaith Council that represents all the major traditions, said that 'no religion freedom was infringed at all. On the contrary the new development bringing a crucial element that was missing order and harmony.' He said faith-based organisations were consulted the passage of the legislation and that requiring pastors to be educated – with a five-year transition period – was a positive move. 'From many religious leaders' perspective, the new law is a step forward, not a step backward in exercising the freedom of worship and the religion,' he said.

The Anglican Bishop of Kigali, Louis Muvunyi, told Christian Today the churches that had been closed were those 'found to be lacking basic infrastructure such as poor hygiene, lack of lavatories, lack of water harvesting system, poor building safety standards'.

He said many churches were operating without licences and were functioning in residential areas of Kigali without soundproofing or parking space.

'In Rwanda the government is not persecuting churches as some media might suggest,' he said. 'The situation in Rwanda is not hostile to the church as some might think. The freedom of worship is still here. What is being done is in the interest of our people.

'The underlying purpose is understandable and we are in constant dialogue with our local authorities to ensure that the implementation is carried out well. Those who have done the required improvements their church buildings have been reopened.'

He also welcomed the stress on theological education, saying: 'Churches in Rwanda have always been training ministers to be theologically educated so that they are well equipped to do the work well in our every day changing society. So this is not something new.'

However, in spite of the positive spin put on the new rules by many church leaders, they have also been criticised by those at the sharp end. Rev Elson Mageza is director of the Bible school in Byumba diocese supported by Church Mission Society (CMS). He told CMS in June that not all church leaders could afford to study for a degree, adding that the government church buildings legislation was forcing congregations to close while they upgraded their buildings – and 'The churches being closed are led by those we are training here in our Bible school.'

The bishop of Byumba diocese, Rt Rev Emmanuel Ngendahayo, said: 'It is a catastrophic situation: 199 churches have been closed down. We now have a big number of Christians who do not go to church. We try to visit them at home as much as we can to encourage them.'

And the Rwandan Catholic Bishops' Conference has criticised the speed of the actions against churches and what they say is poor communication by the government. Secretary-general Father Martin Nizeyimana told Catholic News Service: 'Most Catholics are shocked and disappointed; they don't understand what's happening and why there's been no explanation.

'If measures are taken to protect the safety of people, this is good, but they should be explained, so people don't just arrive and find their church closed.

'It was all very badly handled.'

He told CNS: 'Certainly, religious freedom is proclaimed under our constitution. But if they start closing churches without any warning, we quickly see a gap between law and reality. What's most important now is to ensure our church's mission can continue here.'

Whatever the long-term future, there is clearly short-term pain for many Rwandan Christians – and to Western eyes, any government interference in religion is suspect. However, most Rwandan church leaders appear to take a more nuanced view. While they may be troubled by the scale and speed of the crackdown, they also recognise reforms are needed. Perhaps the government – on the whole – is on the side of the angels.

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods