Originally published in Religion Unplugged
In the latest move that pastors say is another threat to religious freedom, the Ugandan government ordered nearly 12 000 churches and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the country to close in November after failing to participate in a “validation exercise”.
The exercise started in 2018 and ended in October. It aimed to weed out inactive and unauthorized organizations as well as those with unclear operations that the government says could be mismanaging funds.
The order to close unvalidated churches and NGOs comes as Ugandan Born Again or evangelical churches are campaigning to stop a policy proposed last year to require pastors to have formal training and a certificate from the government to start a church.
About 84% of the country is Christian, with the majority Roman Catholic or Anglican. The evangelical and Pentecostal churches have a more difficult time registering because they have either no denominational structure or smaller denominations.
In Uganda, the government requires churches to register, first as companies with the Uganda Service Registration Bureau (USRB) and later with the government’s NGO Board.
Obiga Kania, Uganda’s Internal Affairs Minister told the media at a press conference Nov. 13 that all NGOs that do not appear on the validated register must stop operating immediately. Of the 14,027 NGOs that were registered in Uganda, Kania said, only 2,119 were validated and issued permits. Kania also said only 27% of the organizations had valid permits before the new validation.
Kania asked police, hotel managements and the Financial Intelligence Authority to ensure that the organizations not validated do not conduct business anywhere in the country. Many of the churches have continued hosting prayer and worship, unsure of their fate.
Previously, churches were required to register only once, with the URSB. There is confusion over the need or legality of churches registering as NGOs as well.
David Kiganda of Christianity Focus Center said churches are not supposed to register as NGOs.
“This could explain why many of the churches, including those that had earlier registered under the NGO Act, did not go for the validation exercise,” he said.
Church leaders opposed the requirement, arguing that it violates their religious freedom to worship.
“Our government says it gave us the freedom to worship, but now it’s violating it,” said Solomon Male of the evangelical group, National Committee on Cults and False Teaching in Uganda. “You can’t license beliefs of people. It’s like asking people planting trees to register. Our mandate comes from God, not man.”
Article 29 of Uganda’s constitution guarantees the freedom to practice any religion and the right to belong to and participate in the practices of any religious body or organization in a manner consistent with the rest of the constitution.
The government is especially wary of the potential for corruption in churches receiving financial support from foreign countries to purportedly fund charity work among orphans, widows and street children.
The person registering the NGO needs a letter written by the local council, one chairperson of their village, and stamps from other local government leaders—an expensive process. Most of these offices will require a bribe to write and stamp the letter.
The organisations must also have an administrative chart showing their leadership, pay sh40,000 ($10) for registration and present an organization’s constitution, among other documents.
An effort to stop exploitation
Fr Simon Lokodo, the Ugandan minister of ethics who is behind the policy to require training and certificates for pastors, asked churches to help finalize the plan for the legislature to discuss and pass it as law.
The government says the National Policy on Religious and Faith-Based Organisation (R&FBOs) aims to enforce transparency and financial accountability in faith-based institutions.
Fr. Lokodo, says the policy will stop religious leaders who are exploiting their congregations. Some pastors offer prayers and blessings, promising the person who pays will receive a job or healing or another request.
Most evangelical leaders in Uganda have strongly rejected the policy on grounds that it violates their rights and freedoms to practice their faith and belong to any religious sect, whether recognized by the government or not.
‘It’s not backed by law’
Church leaders and other activists have also strongly condemned the government’s validation exercise.
City lawyer Angualia Busiku said the directive is illegal.
“It’s not backed by law,” Busiku said. “If he wants to issue the directive, the minister must take the Act back to Parliament to amend it.”
Male, the evangelical leader, said that the validation exercise and the requirements for registration trap critical pastors and NGO leaders who on principle won’t relent to a government practice they think is illegal and immoral.
“The same government violating people’s rights can’t validate and later permit us to operate,” Male said. “I will not go for validation and see how they will arrest me.”
Male added that registering churches wouldn’t help solve corruption in the church because the perpetrators are supporters of the ruling government. The Born Again or evangelical churches have some of the wealthiest leaders, wielding so much power and influence among their followers that some are more influential than politicians.
“Some of these evil pastors are rich and will be the first to go through the validation exercise,” he said. “They can easily buy their way all through the process.”