Commission slates churches' abuse of faithful

2017-07-16 06:05
Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva

Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva

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Money, not God, is the cornerstone of South Africa’s unregulated and unscrupulous churches.

Now, the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL) has urged Parliament to deal speedily with its report on the commercialisation of religion.

Chairperson Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva said it was imperative that the commission’s findings be implemented urgently as delays could mean more wrongdoing.

“Every day we hear of new and shocking stories about the abuse of people in churches and the commercialisation of religion.

"As a commission, we are worried that if what we see in some churches continues, it could have detrimental effects on society,” she said.

Mkhwanazi-Xaluva was speaking a few days after submitting a report to Parliament detailing its findings.

A money-making scheme

The 33-page report revealed that churches had been turned into money-making schemes.

Not only were church leaders charging congregants a “consultation fee” before giving them blessings or praying for them, but they were also running fully operational shops where holy water, oil and clothing were sold to congregants at marked-up prices.

But that’s not all.

Some churches had ATMs and speed point machines on their premises, and congregants were encouraged to use them as a convenient way to give offerings and tithes.

Mkhwanazi-Xaluva described this practice as similar to running a supermarket under the guise of running a church.

“Why would churches sell clothing and every other item if the intention was not to make a profit?” she asked.

She said the commercialisation of religion was the commission’s biggest concern with regard to some churches, given that they are all supposed to be nonprofit organisations.

“In some churches, we found that access to the spiritual leaders was only guaranteed by payment of a fixed amount of money,” Mkhwanazi- Xaluva said.

“T-shirts, towels and Vaseline were sold to congregants for good luck, meaning that congregants were made to believe that if they bought these items, they would have good luck.”

Flouting the laws

The findings also revealed that many churches in South Africa were operating illegally.

According to South African law, any church operating here is required to be registered either with the department of social development as a nonprofit organisation or with the SA Revenue Service (Sars) as a public benefit organisation.

Many were found not to be registered as either.

“Some churches that are registered with the social development department do not even report to the department annually, as required by law,” said Mkhwanazi-Xaluva.

“Some do not even disclose to Sars the amount of money they make per year and, in so doing, avoid paying tax.”

She gave as an example some churches which made millions every year and 90% of that money was shipped out of the country, leaving the remainder to service the community in which they operated.

“Some churches tell their congregants that money has to be paid to their head offices and, we discovered, most of these head offices are based outside the country,” said Mkhwanazi-Xaluva.

“Church leaders also do not apply to the Reserve Bank before money is repatriated out of the country. This amounts to illegal activity.

“In some cases, money collected from church members was never banked with any commercial bank.

"In others, the money collected from congregants was deposited directly into the pastor’s private bank account, meaning that he or she could have used it for personal reasons.”

Free-for-all

Lack of accountability and the absence of peer review structures were additional misdeeds flagged by the CRL commission.

Its findings showed that some churches had no code of conduct.

So, if a pastor violated his duties by, for instance, feeding snakes to congregants, there was no way of reporting him to a disciplinary body for action to be taken against him.

“No one can order people to undertake questionable religious practices like eating grass, snakes or rats, or drinking petrol; nor can they lock people in a deep-freeze or drive over them.

"This is why we recommended that a peer review system be set up: for religious leaders to be held accountable for their actions,” said Mkhwanazi-Xaluva.

“We cannot have a free-for-all where people operate without impunity. Pastoralship is a profession, and like any other profession, it should be regulated.”

This recommendation has ruffled the feathers of Freedom of Religion SA, an organisation that describes itself as the voice of the Christian church.

Michael Swain, its executive director, said it was evident that the commission’s recommendation that a peer review system be imposed proved that it wanted to control religion in South Africa.

“Our concern is that although the CRL commission’s proposal may seem benign, it clearly amounts to a power grab by the CRL to capture the religious community and bring it under the control of the state,” said Swain.

“As such, it will almost certainly turn cancerous at some point and is widely condemned and opposed by the religious community.

“There are existing laws in place to deal with every abuse that the CRL has identified and these simply need to be enforced.

"For example, the Prophet of Doom [the name attributed to Pastor Lethebo Rabalago] was interdicted using existing law and prohibited from spraying poisonous substances on people or performing any similar action, or else he would face time in jail.”

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Read more on:    crl  |  sars  |  religion

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