Guest Column

Religions do not need regulations

2017-04-16 06:03

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Enock Phiri

Dear Ms Mkhwanazi-Xaluva

Following a series of media headlines and reports of believers seemingly being hypnotised by their leaders to do all sorts of abnormal things – ranging from eating grass and snakes, and drinking petrol, to others being sprayed with insecticide to be cured of various evil spirits – the commission you lead, Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities, launched an investigation into what it called the commercialisation of religion, to curb apparent and prevalent abuses and malpractices.

I wish to emphasise – as a pastor and leader of believers, I abhor all forms of exploitation, whether they are committed by politicians, religious leaders, employers or people in leadership positions. I believe it is even more ungodly and wicked to use the Bible or any sacred book to exploit God’s people – this makes such leaders no different from the imperialists who used the Bible to steal land from the natives.

My initial response was that of suspicion due to your conduct that came across as partisan and gave the impression that you wanted to entrench the rising culture of turning our country into a nanny state by regulating religion. Furthermore, the approach of the commission seemed to have been targeting particular sections of the Christian faith, thus coming across as a witch-hunt with the intention of humiliating those with divergent views.

However, I chose to support this investigation and subsequently welcomed its preliminary findings while awaiting the release of the final report. I am also pleased that the commission collaborated with Unisa’s Bureau of Market Research to produce an investigative study of the commercialisation of religion in South Africa.

I hope that the recommendations in the preliminary report were inspired by the judgment made by Judge Sandile Ngcobo over the case presented by state prosecutors with regard to whether possession of cannabis was not the central aspect of Rastafarianism. Judge Ngcobo declined to pass judgment and made the following statement:

“As a general matter, the court should not be concerned with questions whether, as a matter of religious doctrine, a particular practice is central to the religion. Religion is a matter of faith and belief. The beliefs that believers hold sacred and thus central to their religious faith may strike non-believers as bizarre, illogical or irrational. Human beings may freely believe in what they cannot prove. Yet, that their beliefs are bizarre, illogical or irrational to others or are incapable of scientific proof, does not detract from the fact that these are religious beliefs for the purposes of enjoying the protection guaranteed by the right to freedom of religion. The believers should not be put to the proof of their beliefs or faith. For this reason, it is undesirable for courts to enter into the debate whether a particular practice is central to a religion unless there is a genuine dispute as to the centrality of the practice.”

I welcome the recommendations of the commission’s preliminary report that highlights the need to protect religious freedom without attempting to have it regulated by the state and the need for the religious communities to regulate themselves more diligently in line with the Constitution and the law.

In a society where 86% of us are Christian and only 5% do not follow a specific religion, as reported in the 2016 Stats SA General Household Survey, now, more than ever, believers have reason to self-regulate, as long as levels of governance and compliance are higher.

I accept that religious organisations need to understand their responsibility in connecting religious freedom and recourse to ethical and community responsibility. Issues such as accreditation and licensing of religions; religious institutions expected to be affiliated to an umbrella organisation; and the establishment of a peer review council which will give permission to operate to individual religious leaders remain challenges which require further engagement.

As tempting as it might be, all due to a few unscrupulous religious leaders, South Africans must refuse the regulation of their religion. They have a responsibility to hold their leaders to high moral standards that promote values of accountability, transparency, trust, honesty, fairness and, most importantly, consideration for the dignity of others.

Complacency has no space in religion; believers must never feel disempowered to act against human rights violations, including those perpetrated by their leaders. The gospel promotes accountability and respect for fellow human beings. Believers today owe it to future generations to report crime and maladministration so as to weed out the bad elements among us.

In doing the work of the Lord, religious leaders have a responsibility to promote human rights and we ought to be examples and role models of ethical leadership. Any act that seeks to exploit congregants or extort money from them must be condemned in the strongest terms. Any acts to use spaces of worship for money laundering, tax avoidance and fraudulent activities ought to be reported to law enforcement agencies.

I fully support the decision of the commission to refer some of the non-compliant, truant and unrepentant religious institutions to organs of
state that deal with such matters, including the Nation
al Prosecuting Authority, department of home affairs and the department of social development.

I understand that, in some instances, action can only start as a result of reported cases by citizens. However, if part of its mandate is to “protect”, the commission will have to be more proactive so that all South Africans can enjoy the tangible benefits of our constitutional democracy.

Yours in His glorious name

Pastor Phiri is speaker, writer and founder of Restoration Ministries

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