Churches in South Africa Oppose Government’s Plans to Regulate Religious Practice

Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva, head of the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities, seated right, with other CRL members (photo courtesy of CRL)
Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva, head of the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities, seated right, with other CRL members (photo courtesy of CRL)

A proposal to regulate religious practice in South Africa is being criticized as a veiled attempt to thwart criticism of the government. On July 11 the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities in South Africa issued a report to Parliament recommending that all religious practitioners be registered under umbrella organizations that would be recognized by the state and subject to “peer-review committees.”

The proposed committees would each cover a religion, for example, one for Christians and one for Muslims, and would be responsible for “religious self-regulation and accountability.” The peer-review committees would act as “the final mediator in all disputes within their own religion.” The commission had been asked to review some at times scandalous behavior of some religious leaders who have been accused of endangering and defrauding the members of their congregations.

South Africa’s constitution safeguards freedom of religious association. Critics of the recommendations say they represent a direct violation of that constitutional commitment.

The director of Freedom of Religion South Africa, Michael Swain, said that the organization “is not persuaded that licensing practitioners is the way to go.” He said that government had no business “meddling with religion.”

F.O.R.S.A. represents about six million people from 227 denominations, churches and other religious groups. Mr. Swain said that F.O.R.S.A. was waiting to make submissions to the parliamentary portfolio committee that will be looking at this report and deciding on the way forward.

South Africa’s bishops came out quickly in opposition to the plan. “We will oppose the recommendation and will make submissions to the appropriate bodies in due course,” said Archbishop Stephen Brislin, president of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference. “The Catholic bishops of South Africa are concerned about the recommendations of the commission that priests, ministers of religion and pastors will, by law, have to register with government as ‘practitioners,’” he said.

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SOURCE: Russell Pollitt, S.J. 
America Magazine