OPINION | Hands off citizens’ rights to belief systems

Shepherd Bushiri celebrates the announcement of his bail.
Shepherd Bushiri celebrates the announcement of his bail.
Image: ALAISTER RUSSELL/THE SUNDAY TIMES

We should defend the right of the leader of Enlightened Christian Gathering Church, Prophet Bushiri’s followers to believe in what they want.

The latest sagas relating to Bushiri have rekindled debates on how far the rights to religious freedom should extend.

Bushiri’s followers, who have parted with millions of rands to fund the controversial prophet’s lifestyle and his church, were recently mocked for their cult-like devotion of him.

Some of his followers were filmed pointing and shouting “Fire! Fire!” towards a law-enforcement vehicle following the prophet’s arrest.

Presumably, their actions were a spiritual demonstration of their anger towards police for having dared arrest their beloved Shepherd.

Of course, Bushiri’s followers’s actions elicited laughter from many in the country because, to them at least, it seemed that they had been hoodwinked in the most cynical way by this prophet.

Cult-like churches such as the one run by the “Doom-spraying” pastor, the case of Pastor Timothy Omotoso, and the Seven Angels Church in Ngcobo have put the question of religious freedom squarely in the spotlight.

Where do you draw the line when it comes to faith-based on devotion and that which is subject to exploitation?

When should the state step in to curb abuses committed by churches?

This is not an easy question because the right to one’s conscience and belief is a sacred one.

No government, surely, should have the right to tell me what I should believe about the meaning of life.

But of course, the government has a rather delicate balancing act when it comes to such matters. I am of the view that governments should not be allowed to regulate or curb the content of faith – unless the church violates specific elements of criminal codes, such as when there are physical beatings, money laundering, rape, sex trafficking, holding people against their will and administering noxious substances to congregants.

Otherwise, the law should not be able to tell people not to give their money to false prophets.

There has, for some time now, been a social media post circulating claiming that Rwandan President Paul Kagame has shut down a number of cult-like churches and insisted church leaders acquire degrees in theology before starting their own churches.

The trouble with allowing governments to use their legal power to shut down religious institutions is that it accords the state the power to tell its citizenry what to think and what not to think.

While I do not like the fact that Bushiri’s followers shower him with hard-earned cash, the right they have to believe in him actually allows me the right to be free to follow my own belief system.

If I choose to believe the ancestors are with me, no government should be entitled to tell me that this is an untestable belief – and, therefore, as a consequence, begin to regulate my faith leanings.

Having said that, even indigenous practitioners such as sangomas regularly come up for scrutiny for their methods and practices, especially as it relates to abuses that can happen during initiation – and when it comes to the safety of herbal substances administered during rituals.

The reality is that spirituality is a fundamental element of psychology – of being human.

Imagine the nightmare that would unfold if the government began trying to classify and validate religious practices.

What the government can do, though, is provide a range of non-punitive support services such as social workers and community counsellors to help monitor the proliferation of cult-like churches.

Most importantly, to combat religious fraud, we need even more open, robust discussion within our communities, from the media and in NGOs about religion.

As Africans we need to tackle religious topics with the same vigour that we tackle politics.

The duty to deal with religious nonsense lies in the realm of public action and debate – not with the state.

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