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By Evelyne Naikoba | 06 December 2019                                             

Freedom of Religion refers to the principle that speaks to the liberty an individual has to form a thought or have a religion or whatever belief of his/her choice, whether individually or in a community with others, whether privately or publicly, and to practice this belief or religion without interference. It is essentially the right to choose what religion or faith to follow and to express this same without interference. This principle is an instrument or mechanism put in place to safeguard the sanctity of the conscience of an individual which is inalienable and considered the most sacred of rights. This fundamental liberty as enshrined in law protects one’s right to live, speak and act according to his/her belief, publicly and peacefully.

Customary international law makes provision for the observance of this freedom in various instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 18), International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 18), UN General Comment 22 on the Freedom of Thought, Conscience and Religion, the 1981 Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief (Article 1), and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Banjul Charter) (Article . The same principle has been incorporated by member States of the international community in their respective municipal laws, with internal mechanisms to ensure observance and enforcement of the same. Suffice it to note that Uganda is party to these instruments and has ratified the spirit of these provisions under Articles 7 and 29(1) (c) of the 1995 Constitution of the Republic of Uganda — which stipulate non adoption of a State religion and freedom of thought, conscience and religion respectively. As such, Uganda is obligated to preserve, protect and promote religious freedom in accordance with the above provisions.

That notwithstanding, the Government of Uganda recently initiated development of a national policy through the Directorate of Ethics and Integrity which is resident under the Office of the President, to govern the affairs of Religious and Faith Organisations (RFOs). This policy was shortly accompanied by a private members Bill named the Religious Societies and Places of Worship Bill of 2017 which was tabled before Parliament and rejected on grounds of inconsistency, but may soon be tabled for the second time before Parliament.

Government through this policy, currently known as the Religious and Faith Organisations (RFO) Policy intends to put in place a framework that will purportedly “strengthen governance of RFOs, ensure transparency and accountability, promote unity in diversity and provide a yardstick for worship, in addition to classifying roles and functions between religious institutions and government”. It is also aimed at “enhancing collaboration and streamlining cooperation” between government and religious organisations in “service delivery to citizens”. It is important to note however that this policy which suggests fundamental adjustments concerning RFOs with imminent and inevitable violations to the freedom of religion was only considered by a few proponents in secret meetings and to date, its actual contents have never been disseminated for wider consultation with other key stakeholders. In this article, we examine some of the aspects of this Policy to establish whether they are in line with the fundamental elements of the Freedom of Religion. For purposes of this discussion, some aspects of the above Bill which mirror the provisions of the policy will be alluded to.

First, the Policy places the Office of the President and Directorate for Ethics and Integrity as the overseers of all the RFOs in Uganda; which puts all RFOs under the control and dictates of the State. The Government is proposing under Clause 8.2 of the Policy to establish an RFO Board which will be appointed by the Minister responsible for Ethics and Integrity. The purpose of this Board is to exercise the mandate to register, regulate, monitor and oversee the activities of RFOs. In particular under Clause 8.2(c)(i) and (ii); the Board will maintain a register of all registered RFOs and consider new applications for registration by the Board including RFO umbrellas/networks. To begin with the very composition of this five member Board cannot guarantee impartiality as three of its proposed members are government appointees who are bound to have an allegiance to the Government and the other two will be representatives of RFOs appointed by the Minister who again cannot be relied on as it is highly likely that the Minister will choose from those who favour this cause. Secondly, the current Minister is extremely biased about the matters of faith practiced by some RFOs; owing to his limited understanding or lack thereof, of the tenets that guide the practice of their faith and belief. It is therefore ludicrous to imagine that this civil servant, an excommunicated priest, can together with his equally blind cohorts offer anything useful, let alone impartial in respect to RFOs; especially in regard to the mushrooming sects which he often invokes as his rationale for regulation. Can this Policy then be said to foster religious freedom? What happens if the said RFOs do not meet the registration criteria as determined by government? Does this take away their legitimacy of belief and the right to exercise the same? One simply wonders what knowledge and expertise the government has on the subject of religion to be able to register the RFOs and to consider or reject applications for registration. Furthermore, the Policy seeks to determine which entities can and cannot be registered as an RFO through the registration and quality assurance policy as stipulated under Clause 7.0 (d) (viii). Since the criteria for eligibility for registration will be determined by Government which in the first place should not be engaging in the affairs of RFOs, it is highly likely (if not certain) that the Government will use this registration process to determine which RFOs can exist and continue with their activities and those which will not. This in no uncertain terms is government overreach in matters relating to RFOs and unconstitutional as it fosters discrimination which will alienate some RFOs which do not meet the criteria; with inevitable violation of the freedom of religion. Perhaps the said Board should instead monitor and ensure the protection of the citizens’ freedom of religion as opposed to restricting the same as seen from the Policy.

The Policy also intends to have all RFOs registered under umbrella organisations or networks for easy censorship as per Clause 7.0 (c) (i), as well as to put in place a framework that regulates RFOs under Clause 7.0 (c) (ii). For starters, the requirement for all religious institutions to register under an umbrella framework is problematic, since not all entities considered by the Government and the public as belonging to the same faith, actually follow the same doctrine. A case in point is the Born Again sect which is itself divided on matters of doctrine and its interpretation. Should this unity be imposed when in fact the same Policy supposedly fosters diversity in beliefs? Does this not infringe on one’s freedom to belong to a religion and thus a religious community of his/her choice and to express his/her beliefs as he/she chooses without interference and dictation on where to belong?

Whereas the Policy acknowledges that there are existing laws and institutions in place for the registration and regulation of RFOs like the Uganda Registration Services Bureau, the NGO Bureau, the District local governments and the Directorate of Ethics and Integrity among others, it requires these RFOs which have already complied with these existing and sufficient registration or incorporation mechanisms, to register again. The reason given is that the Policy apparently fronts issues that the current laws do not address such as “registration of all RFOs in Uganda” yet the said bodies actually do register the RFOs as shown under Clause 3.9 of the Policy. This is intended to make the registration process which is unnecessary in the first place, tedious; with the intention of frustrating RFOs which are not in the government’s good books.

The Policy suggests formal training for all spiritual leaders and preachers under Clause 4.0 (iv) and further requires religious leaders to obtain permits before they can qualify as leaders, and to seek permission before they can set up premises. This position is supported by the Bill which also stipulates mandatory theological training for spiritual leaders, the need to obtain a certificate of theology, and approval from the general public before one can start a religious institution or take on certain roles and responsibilities in the church or other RFO. This in itself is problematic as it is assumed that all faiths or religions go by the same yardstick or method of training or impartation of spiritual principles and growth. What the Government has not addressed itself to is the fact that not all spirituality and morality is imparted by training. Whereas some religions (particularly traditional religions), go by this method of preparing those who serve as clergy, other faiths have different preparation methods which cannot be and needless to add, should not be stipulated by the Government. While other faiths such as the Anglican and Catholic faiths propose a passage through training in a seminary or Bible training school, other faiths like some Born Again sects have a different preparation method which is mainly spiritually imparted and received. Any suggestion therefore to uphold and impose one preparation method for spiritual leaders on all RFOs goes against the very sanctity of conscience and origination of belief, not to mention diversity in belief, as well as the liberty to express the same. One is in fact at pains to understand what authority a secular entity (the Government) has to interfere in matters pertaining to spiritual or religious training.

The Policy under the guise of promoting accountability and transparency among RFOs suggests establishment of a mechanism for the regulation of finances and resources of religious entities (especially born again churches) where RFOs are required to give account of all their dealings to the State as per Clause 7.0 (c) (i). This is also supported by the Bill which stipulates declaration of sources of income for ministers. In fact, the originators of this policy have even suggested that church funds should be taxed and opined that the Government should be involved in management of resources and properties owned by RFOs especially churches. To begin with, it is important to note that regulation suggests control. With this in mind, the Government is in fact seeking interest in and oversight over RFO resources albeit indirectly. It is not clear how the Government intends to execute this regulation of finances. However, the institution charged with this responsibility would be a State owned institution, which cannot guarantee impartiality especially with the patronage of the current ruling establishment, which has a reputation of financially frustrating those it perceives as holding divergent views from its own with allegations of money laundering and financing of terrorism activities. Is religious freedom for those who hold dissenting views guaranteed in this respect?

The spirit behind this policy is simply sinister and intended to let the government have its way about religion or belief and its manifestation or practice. It is safe to say that the above policy proposals whether singularly or severally, do not and cannot safeguard or foster freedom of religion. The very State that endorsed and ratified the above human rights standards is the very one seeking to rescind this agreement with the people and the rest of the world to observe and protect this freedom. But what is expected of an establishment which despite repeated calls and admonitions to observe human rights continues to turn a deaf ear and has repeatedly treasonously violated our Constitution? Uganda is in dire straits as the very propagators and culprits of corruption, turn on hapless citizens to demand accountability and transparency.

We end with a reminder from the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which expressly states that no one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief of his choice. The Government must therefore back down on this policy suggestion or else we might as well settle for a time when after they have taken the people’s freedom of conscience, belief and religion, the same Government will come to take another freedom as seen from their systematic inclination to overturn our Constitution. Give it an inch and it will take the whole yard.