Tempers cool on divisive Churches’ Bill

Raging debate: Religious leaders are outraged at the proposed amendments
Raging debate: Religious leaders are outraged at the proposed amendments

Debate of the divisive Churches’ Bill has cooled, marking a dramatic change from last week when one MP broke his glasses in protest, another threatened to strip naked, one vowed to die in the fight and another burst into tears.

Among the raft of proposed amendments to the Churches’ Act is a hotly debated proposal to raise the number of people required for the registration of a religious organisation from ten to 250. Government says the change is to prevent the proliferation of unscrupulous “prophets”, but opponents say the clause is paternalistic and seeks to dictate to the faithful.

Debating the motion during a less dramatic session of Parliament, Gaborone Bonnington South MP, Ndaba Gaolathe, said the bill had touched at the fibre of who Batswana are as a people.

“I want to put it to you that the provision that puts the 250-threshold to start a church, compromises freedom. It is against freedom. It attacks our freedom. “When we look at the demography of Botswana, many of our people live in small settlements and cattle posts with populations of less than 200 people.

“People living in these small settlements do not enjoy the freedom to form a church,” he said.  The soft-spoken legislator said some of the “finest men and women in Botswana” had been made through a foundation in churches with less than 250 congregants.

“One thing we promised our people is that we would fight for their freedom,” he said.

“What is at stake as I see it here is the freedom of our people to express their spirituality.”

For his part, Justice, Defence and Security Minister, Shaw Kgati said his constituents in Bobirwa had agreed with the amendments and would gladly accept the increase in the threshold.  “Most of them expressed their worry over the mushrooming of churches in the constituency,” he said. “They also want stern action to be taken against those who break the law. Some were even extreme saying the threshold should be 350. Local Government and Rural Development minister, Slumber Tsogwane also supported the proposed amendments, describing them as overdue.  “I support the amendment on behalf of the people that I represent and the Botswana Democratic Party government,” he said.

However, Gabane/Mankgodi MP, Pius Mokgware said the 250 threshold would lead to the mushrooming of illegal churches.

“I agree that Botswana is flooded with ‘economic missionaries’, but the amendments will not solve the problem.

“If you come up with a law you cannot enforce, you breed corruption,” he said.

“The threshold will also curtail the freedom of religion.” The Gaborone Central MP Dr Phenyo Butale said the amendments were unwelcome.

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