Evangelical leaders in Uganda are rejecting a proposed policy requiring them to have formal training before opening a church.
The National Policy on Religious and Faith-Based Organization was first announced in December 2018 by the Uganda State Minister for Ethics and Integrity, Fr. Simon Lokodo. It aims to enforce transparency and financial accountability among religious-based institutions. In October, Lokodo asked churches to help finalize the policy to prepare the country’s cabinet to discuss and pass or reject it as law.
Currently, churches are not required to declare revenues to the government even when there are concerns about some of the sources and misuse of funds. It’s common to find a pastor owning a fleet of luxurious cars and apartments in the plush city suburbs of the capital Kampala when their flock is drowning in abject poverty.
“The policy will stop the exploitation of the flock by some unscrupulous religious leaders, who have taken advantage of the gaps in the current law to manipulate their flock and extort from them,” Lokodo said.
Lokodo also observed that manipulating church congregations has become a “norm.” For example, people who go to church for blessings to find a job or to be healed are first asked to pay money to the pastors.
The policy requires that the pastors present an annual financial report for the revenues collected from their congregations and external funders.
Pastors resist policy
Many pastors seem not ready to lose their freedom.
Since the policy was announced, most pastors in Uganda have condemned it, arguing that it is an affront to the freedom of worship in the constitution.
Article 29(c) of Uganda’s constitution guarantees freedom to practice any religion, which includes freedom to participate in the practices of any particular religious body or organization. Article 7 of the Constitution says that the country shall not have a state religion. The definition of what makes a religion is not clear.
The proposed policy targets mainly the “Born Again” or evangelical faith since laws apply separately to the traditional religious sects like Islam, Catholicism, and Anglicanism. The evangelical faith constitutes 11.1% of Uganda’s population of the 34.6 million people according to the 2014 population census.
Pastors petition court
Pr. Michael Kyazze of Omega International Ministries says that the policy is a deliberate move by the government to keep evangelical churches begging until the 2021 general elections, where it could be dropped in exchange for political support.
The “Born Again” faith is a big block of voters in Uganda, who in the past have supported President Yoweri Museveni to retain power for the last 33 years. Many in the faith voted for President Museveni on grounds that he allowed them to open churches and operate, which was not the case before his government came to power in 1986.
“The key question is, how will the registration question be settled without creating a monstrous vetting committee of religious people with personal biases?” Kyazze said.
He added that the policy is obviously asking for the creation of the ministry of religion and a religious authority which will be charged with the responsibility to approve, vet, assess, police, terminate as well as regulate worship experiences.
“Apart from Islamic nations, there are a few other nations that have the Ministry of Religion,” he said. “Is Uganda going to create a state religion in a secular Constitution?”
Some pastors fear that answer is essentially, “yes,” and are petitioning the High Court in Kampala to prevent the policy from passing into law. Pastor Joseph Kabuleta of Watchman Ministries is arguing that the proposed policy is an attempt by the state to impose a state religion, and therefore unconstitutional.
Kabuleta sued Lokodo, whom he accuses of popularizing the policy. He said in his petition that “the manipulation of the flock” and other crimes committed by individual pastors are covered under other laws on protection of life and property.
Pastors against the policy recently met President Museveni and requested him to stop the proposal from becoming law. Museveni who has declared his intention to seek re-election in 2021, promised the pastors that the proposed policy will be discussed until a consensus is reached.
“Simon Peter in the Bible had never been to the seminary,” Museveni said. “He was a fisherman who was called by Jesus, and St. Paul persecuted the Church, but later joined it.”
The management of evangelical interests in Uganda has been a challenge to the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) government. Originally, when the government took power in 1986 and allowed evangelical churches to operate, each institution was placed under the Ministry of Justice and was required to register as a company.
Later after lobbying the government, the churches were pushed under the Ministry of Internal Affairs and directed to register as NGOs, required to renew their permits annually.
Date published: 08/11/2019
Feature image: Pastors praying during a meeting with Ugandan pastors in Kampala recently. Photo by John Semakula.
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