Church attendance has declined in Rwanda this year and church leaders live in fear, as the government continues to close churches amid increasing aggressive secularisation by President Paul Kagame.
More than 8,000 churches have now been closed in the Christian-majority country, and the number keeps growing, on the pretext of failing to meet requirements laid down at the beginning of the year, according to the pro-government KT Press.
World Wide Monitor says new requirements set in place for congregations that want to continue ministry are also complicating efforts to comply.
The closures began in the East African country in February. World Watch Monitor reported that all churches are suffering the same fate, with the closures much more politically influenced than the government says.
‘It signals to the churches that they are under observation, just like other social organisations in Rwanda’, a local analyst said anonymously.
Shortly after the new requirements began to be implemented, officials arrested six pastors accused of plotting to defy the government orders. Although they were released, the arrests served as a warning to others to not resist the move. Christians are reported to be meeting in caves and walking 20km to attend church.
New requirements include toilets having to be a certain distance from the church entrance, canvas ceilings, paved church access roads and church compounds, plastering of inside walls and ceilings, and installation of lightning conductors.
All pastors now need to have a theological degree from an accredited institute, and only institutions that also teach science and technology can teach theology, meaning that few of the many (often highly-regarded) theological institutions or Bible schools are regarded as valid.
Rwandans’ right to religious freedom is granted under article 37 of the 2003 constitution, which was amended in 2015, but the government no longer allows prayer meetings in government institutions, and words referring to the Christian faith have been removed from the preamble of the constitution.
Pastors cannot speak or preach during commemoration of the genocide. And, on two Sundays per month, main roads are closed meaning that many people cannot reach their church.
Kagame secured election for a third term as Rwanda’s president with 99 per cent of the vote in 2017 after amending the constitution to abolish a previous two term limit. His administration has been criticised for the pressuring and arrest of dissenters and political opponents.