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RELIGIOUS FREEDOMS AND THE COVID-19 RESPONSE IN UGANDA
By Evelyne Naikoba | 11 May 2020
When disaster strikes, its consequences can be long to remedy or even linger on for months and years. The degree to which such effects increase inherent inequalities in life and society is to a significant extent premised on how governments and humanitarian actors integrate human rights into their disaster preparedness and response action plan.
In late 2019, a new coronavirus (SARS-COV-2) which causes COVID-19 was first detected in Wuhan, China; setting off a global pandemic which has stayed its course over the past few months and spread to 124 countries and territories to date according to worldometer sources. Prior to this pandemic, the World Health Organisation reported two outbreaks of corona viruses responsible for respiratory conditions known as the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) which occurred in 2002 and 2012 respectively.
SARS emerged in Southern China in 2002 and quickly spread to 28 other countries infecting more than 8000 people by July 2003 and killing approximately 774 people. MERS, on the other hand, emerged in Saudi Arabia infecting nearly 2500 people and registering over 858 deaths. Neither SARS nor MERS raised half as much havoc as COVID-19 which has resulted into a global lockdown of economies and an unprecedented intereference in human activity. Needless to say, life as we have always known it seems to have taken a turn for the worst and come to a paralyzing limbo, as nations battle to contain and avert this pandemic. This pandemic has literally turned all spheres of human life, be they political, social and economic up side down.
Uganda’s first confirmed case of COVID-19 was discovered on 22nd March 2020. Given the fact that the health and wellbeing of the people is central to the socioeconomic development of this nation, the Ministry of Health (MOH) in a bid to ensure an adequate response and mitigation of the impact of this pandemic, released several health and safety guidelines.
It is on this premise that the President – H.E. Yoweri Kaguta Museveni while addressing the nation on 30th March 2020 on the State’s intended measures to curb the spread of this virus announced a national lockdown effective 01st April 2020 and a roll out of a number of preparedness, risk reduction and response measures; including the suspension of non-essential services along with a number of restrictive measures such as banning of communal gatherings in mosques, churches or in stadia and other open air venues. This lockdown has been in effect for over 45 days now.
While even the toughest critics of the current government may agree that these measures are timely to combat the further spread of the virus, there is a fear that this situation may present an opportunity for a further overlook of various human rights or worse still a trading of the same in exchange for apparent safety. We opine that the current proposed measures appear overly broad and ambiguous; thus giving the Government of Uganda a carte blanche mandate to interfere with or to indefinitely suspend certain rights and freedoms in light of the state of emergency occasioned by the outbreak of Covid-19.
Be that as it may, it is also a known fact that on 30th October 2019, the Fountain of Honour while addressing the Convention of African Judiciaries on Human Rights remarked that Africa has more pressing challenges to start address than human rights violations (https://observer.ug/…/62488-human-rights-shouldn-t-be…). One wonders therefore, whether the leadership of this nation is in the least bit mindful of the sanctity of the inalienable human rights embedded in our Constitution– in view of the various health precautionary and safety measures being implemented. Arguably, the proponents of such restrictions might want to suggest that they are plausible and that enjoyment of human rights may be limited on grounds of promoting and safeguarding public health. However, it is imperative that there is a clear cut demonstration that such limitations are acceptable and obviously justifiable in this democratic society; not to mention their necessity and proportionality to the situation being addressed. Now, in a country that has not only registered a greater number of recoveries than active cases but successfully maintained zero deaths thus far, it is highly questionable whether an extended lockdown is viable and a genuine response to protecting the citizenry which is already in dire need of means of survival. Moreover, it should be noted also that Uganda’s situation is further compounded by the scaling back of judicial and legal services; irrespective of the fact that human rights have got to be the legal underpinning of all humanitarian work pertaining to the pandemic response.
As already stated, nations have had to suffer similar inroads to their civil liberties and ways of life cutting across the political, social and economic spectrums. Interestingly though, countries which have faced a more devastating impact of this virus such as Italy and Germany –so far registering 30,000 and 7,500 deaths respectively are already gradually opening their economies and places of worship.
With specific reference to religious liberties, the countrywide lockdown has had a significant impact on the religious community. A shutdown of the faith community in a country where faith is an integral part the fabric of society and largely influences the way of life is irrational. These measures if sustained unjustifiably will amount to religious persecution. It is imperative to state that persecution usually begins with deceptively small and subtle ways that seem acceptable in the circumstances and encroaches further onto a society with every step of acceptance. Sooner or later this society awakes to a full blown yet subtle invasion of its liberties. People of all faiths must therefore be wary and awaken to such inroads because the persecution or victimization of people for their faith or lack of it – is not simply an issue for the religious; it should be of concern to everyone, regardless of religion or lack thereof. In recent years, governments and individuals around the world have encroached on the freedom of conscience, belief, or religion through formulation of policies and laws which violate core beliefs on important aspects of life. Uganda is no exception as evidenced with the ongoing consideration of a State policy to manage the affairs of religious and faith organisations; which has the potential to blatantly contravene Article 29(1)(c) of our Constitution.
It is therefore vital, for purposes of this analysis, to interpret the definition of persecution with sensitivity to mean the systematic mistreatment of an individual or a group of individuals as a response to their religious beliefs or affiliations or absence of the same. The tendency of societies or groups within societies to alienate or repress different subcultures is a recurrent theme in human history. Suffice it to note that factors related to religion are often inextricably intertwined with ‘non religion’ factors like life, liberty and non-discrimination to mention but a few.
While many may have been impressed by the early and resolute actions taken by the Government of Uganda to combat Covid-19 — which on the face of it appear well intentioned and to an extent necessary, the contours and context of religious persecution have changed since the outbreak. The million-dollar question is whether the aforementioned restrictions imposed on the Religious Community (suspension of gatherings) are demonstrably justifiable and constitutionally acceptable in a free and fair society.
To put the above discussion into context, in his address to the nation on 4th May 2020; one that saw a further extension on the national lockdown by 14 days, His Excellency Yoweri Kaguta Museveni in assessing the current state of the country’s fight against Covid-19 paused three questions being: “Is it vaccinatable? Is it treatable? Is it avoidable by the behavior of the people?” to which he responded stating that: option 1 can only be available in 18 months (which he emphasized is the real solution to the problem), option 2 largely depends on the numbers of infected persons remaining small so that the medical workers can concentrate their effort on the patients –which is also unsustainable given that the few positive cases that Uganda has recorded thus far have in the past apparently taken 16 days to recover. He therefore determined that the third option of avoiding it by social distancing behaviour given its infectious nature (if precautions are not taken) is the most viable action in the absence of vaccines and further emphasized that communal prayers are still under suspension.
If the current stringent measures are a justification for continual deferral of mass gatherings, what would this mean for religious organisations? The devil is always in the details! Certainly, it is clear that this is an opportunity and the latest in the long line of attempts by the government through its organs to regulate religious and faith organizations and to stipulate their operations. As it is, not only the religious community in Uganda has been negatively affected by the national lockdown measures imposed. Let us now examine how some of our brethren in other States have reacted to the lockdown directive passed by their respective governments.
In Kenya, a sizeable section of Kenyan nationals have petitioned the President Uhuru Kenyatta and his government over the indefinite ban imposed on places of worship in the wake of COVID-19. According to them, this ban is not only unconstitutional and against the federal laws but also highly discriminative considering that the authorities have flagged off the continual operation of other services that include transport, restaurants, pharmacies, supermarkets, abortion centres and other non-essential services even when such places of worship are ready to adhere to the presidential directives on social distancing.
Similarly, South Africans through one of the leading advocacy groups for religious freedoms—FORSA– that has since become the reference point in South Africa for religious matters across the faith spectrum, have petitioned their government to make an exemption for religious organisations, arguing that these draconian measures instituted by a wide range of governments across the world, only serve to strip the people of their fundamental human rights.
In Nigeria, one of the top religious leaders has questioned the basis of their President relaxing some lockdown measures in Abuja, Lagos and the Federal Capital, bringing a gradual resumption to some activities in the economy whilst maintaining stringent measures against the religious community. In expressing his concern regarding President Muhammad Buhari’s decision to keep churches and mosques closed, Bishop Oyedepo questioned why markets should be allowed to operate for six hours and yet churches cannot be open for two hours, especially considering that churches are more organized than markets. He further questioned why churches where more healings happen than in hospitals should remain closed and concluded that this arrangement is nothing short of an attempt to subtly persecute and oppress the faith community (https://www.kanyidaily.com ).
Conversely, while the nationals of the above countries are still in the process of securing their religious freedoms, we have concretized precedents from other nations as detailed below where the citizens have successfully petitioned their respective governments and secured judgements in favor of having the ban(s) imposed on their religious communities lifted. This should hopefully serve as an example to Uganda.
President John Pombe Magufuli while addressing his Tanzanian country men emphatically stated that his government would neither shut down its economy nor its places of worship. As a matter of fact, he regarded worship centres as places where people could seek healing and therefore urged Tanzanian citizens not to be afraid to praise and seek God’s face in places of worship despite the pandemic. Magufuli grounded his decision on the fact that the Covid-19 outbreak is satanic; adding that there is no way it could thrive in Christ’s Body ( https://www.wsj.com/articles).
In Malawi, the decision by the Special Cabinet Committee on Covid-19 to impose a ban against church gatherings was reversed by their government after the Malawi Council of Churches (MCC) petitioned the Malawian government. The Minister of Health Jappie Mhango, who chairs the Special Cabinet Committee on Covid-19, had initially prescribed that Church gatherings should be suspended as a measure to prevent the spread of the killer virus in the country. However, in a statement issued by MCC’s General Secretary – Gilford Matonga, it was maintained that churches will still congregate in line with guidelines on physical distance upon consultation from the Presidential Advisor on Religious Affairs, Apostle Timothy Khoviwa. The Episcopal Conference of Malawi, the umbrella body of the Catholic Bishops in Malawi, has also advised Catholic faithfuls to continue gathering for prayers; not exceeding 100 congregants at a time (https://allafrica.com/stories/).
Similarly, in the United States of America, several States have had to revise the unconstitutional bans placed against places of worship after various lawsuits were filed against the respective City Councils. In Greenville Mississippi, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) Attorneys filed a suit Temple Baptist Church v. City Greenville protesting an order that had been issued by the Council against drive-in services and yet other services like drive in restaurants had been allowed to continue operating. The U.S Department of Justice filed a statement of interest in the lawsuit supporting the rights of churches. Resultantly, this unconstitutional ban on drive in services was quashed on the grounds that this ban was overreaching and wasn’t necessary to protect health and safety but rather only served to violate freedoms protected by the First Amendment. Additionally, this order was quashed on the basis that while public officials have the right to care about public health and safety during the coronavirus crisis, they were wrong to treat churches more harshly than other businesses and others in government orders related to it. Moreover, ADF attorneys filed a suit against the Kansas government official whose initial executive order was discriminative against some local churches by limiting the number of people who can participate in religious services, even though they had implemented social distancing measures and other precautions. As if that wasn’t enough, the same restrictions had not been applied to retail establishments and office buildings. Resultantly, on 30th April 2020, the Governor announced a new executive order that does not specifically target churches and other religious activities for disfavored treatment (www.adflegal.org).
More recently, Attorney General William Barr while speaking on behalf of the U.S Department of Justice on 4th May 2020 issued a statement stipulating that Virginia State acted above and beyond its rightful call of COVID-19 government duty by closing churches to more than 10 people while allowing some businesses to hold untold numbers of shoppers. He emphasized that not only was this a legal contortion of the Constitution since the right of freedom of worship is protected by the U.S. Constitution, but unjust to allow other businesses to continue operations under social distancing guidelines while churches are not allowed to and therefore directed that places of worship be allowed to function in accordance with the social distancing directives (www.washingtontimes.com ).
Lastly, Germany’s Constitutional Court on 29th April 2020 overturned a blanket ban on religious services during the Covid -19 crisis; allowing exceptions for the various religious places of worship on condition that sufficient precautions to avoid infection are undertaken by the latter. This ruling came after an appeal was made against the ban on the Muslim Association carrying out Friday prayers in their last week of fasting. The Court in its ruling stated that it found such a ban to be a serious infringement on religious freedom and therefore grossly unconstitutional and hardly tenable. It listed possible ways that had been suggested by the mosque and added that such exemption ought to be granted if an increase in the risk of infection can be reliably denied. While delivering the judgement in favor of the Muslim Association, court held that this ruling equally applied to other faiths (https://news.abs-cbn.com/germanys-top-court-rules-against… )
From the foregoing, because pandemics pause various challenges including those of a humanitarian nature, human rights protection ought to be meticulously considered by States or governments in these contexts and therefore incorporated into their rapid response plans. This is a vital step that the Government of Uganda seems to have overlooked. While there is still a lot of skeptism about life as we have known it ever returning to normalcy after what appears to be the worst global health disaster since the Spanish flu of 1918, it is more certain than probable that the ideals of human dignity and social justice (both absolute and relative)– from which the fundamental human rights such as conscience, thought and religion are derived, will endure. In any case, there is neither a cure, nor a vaccination envisaged within the next 18 months and according to the experts, so-called “herd immunity” only kicks in when about 60% of the population have already contracted the disease and recovered from it. The “flatten the curve” strategy is, therefore, essential to ensure that our limited health infrastructure and services are not completely overrun by the first wave of infections.
Accordingly, while the Uganda Government might have instituted various measures as exigencies of the situation intended to curb the further spread of COVID-19, it is as clear as noon day light that any continual attempt to suspend/shut down religious places of worship as has been the case since 19th March 2020 is grossly unconstitutional and an infringement of the sacrosanct right of Ugandans to exercise their right of freedom of thought, conscience and religion which in turn affects their enjoyment of other civil liberties provided for in the 1995 Constitution as elaborately discussed in one of our earlier publications here.
It is therefore of utmost importance that the leadership of this nation is put in remembrance of its undelegatable duty to ensure that such health safety measures uphold the tenets of the 1995 Constitution of the Republic of Uganda; as well as remain consistent with its obligations under municipal and international law; which measures should not be in conformity with any form of discrimination based on race, colour, sex, language, religion or social origin. Therefore, the realistic expectation is that despite the public health emergency, derogations from the rights to recognition everywhere as a person before the law, to freedom of thought, conscience and religion are never permissible. It is equally important for our fellow citizens to wake up and smell the coffee because the wave of religious persecution is in fact global and should be addressed lawfully according to our governing laws.
Overall, the State’s obligation to safeguard religious freedoms cannot be overemphasized for as they have a direct bearing on enjoyment of other fundamental human rights and freedoms.
For God and My Country!