Catholic bishops in Rwanda have called on President Paul Kagame to safeguard religious rights after government officials forcibly shut thousands of churches and mosques.
“Most Catholics are shocked and disappointed; they don’t understand what’s happening and why there’s been no explanation,” said Father Martin Nizeyimana, secretary-general of the Rwandan Catholic bishops’ conference, according to Catholic News Service.
“If measures are taken to protect the safety of people, this is good, but they should be explained, so people don’t just arrive and find their church closed,” he said.
The government apparently closed the churches and mosques because of what the government said were safety issues and for failing to meet with regulations such as standard structures, sanitation requirements, locations and operation certificates.
“It was all very badly handled,” Father Nizeyimana said, adding that the closures had “deeply affected” Rwanda’s Catholic Church, especially in rural areas, as communities had to go without Mass.
“Certainly, religious freedom is proclaimed under our constitution. But if they start closing churches without any warning, we quickly see a gap between law and reality. What’s most important now is to ensure our church’s mission can continue here.”
In late July, the government said safety measures had been agreed upon in February between government officials and “church leaders” but Father Nizeyimana said Rwandan Catholic leaders had been given “no warning or information” about the forced closures.
Catholics make up around half of the 12 million people in Rwanda but following the 1994 genocide numerous religious denominations had sprung up.
The government statement confirmed that 1,381 Pentecostal prayer houses had been closed under the February decree, and 15 percent of all mosques, as well as more than a third of the 71 Catholic churches in Rwanda’s western Rusizi district alone.
“These closures do not infringe on freedom to worship, but rather address the alarming proliferation of places of worship in dilapidated and unhygienic conditions, as well as troubling behavior by unscrupulous individuals masquerading as religious leaders,” the statement said.