Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Regulation of ‘Fire!’ churches negatively affected religious freedom score

The amendment of the Societies Act in 2015 to curb the spread of prosperity gospel has had the effect of lowering Botswana’s score on religious freedom in the Human Freedom Index (HFI).

Worried about the spread of a brand of Christianity that took root in the United States in the late 1970s, the Botswana government decided to increase the threshold for church membership to make it more difficult to start new churches.  At a time that the Societies Amendment Bill was being debated in parliament, Botswana’s score in the legal and regulatory restrictions on religious freedom dropped by 0.6 points ÔÇô from 9.1 in 2014 to 8.5 in 2015.

HFI uses three components in the religious freedom category: freedom to establish and operate religious organizations, infringements on religious freedom characterized by harassment and physical hostility and restrictions on religion that are of a legal or regulatory nature. There had been clear manifestation of the first two components prior to the amendment of the Societies Act. Such manifestation took the form of cracking down on mostly foreign-owned prosperity gospel (commonly known as “Fire!”) churches, with some pastors being expelled from the country for criminal wrongdoing.

The scoring goes only up to 2015 ÔÇô which is when the law was amended ÔÇô and it would be interesting to find out how a new dispensation has affected the country’s score. There is every likelihood that the legal and regulatory restrictions caused the score to plummet further than 8.5 and that the same would have happened to the score for the second component – which was a perfect 10 in 2015. It is likely that the temporary closure of a church owned by a Malawian pastor, Shepherd Bushiri, would have negatively affected Botswana’s score because the church has a very large following. Circumstances around the church’s closure, not least the involvement of the police and government officials who are themselves churchgoers, will fit the language that HFI uses. With specific regard to the harassment and physical hostilities, the report states: “Not only governments but also individuals, members of opposing religions, and other groups in society can perpetrate those violations.” The issue of conflict of interest has not been raised substantially but officials who go around shutting down churches, including cabinet ministers, are evidently conflicted in this matter because they belong to opposing churches.

Generally, the government campaign against prosperity gospel is not going too well and in some instances, literally goes south and makes worship expensive. With Bushiri having been barred from Botswana, some of his followers travel to South Africa to attend his church services.

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