Regulating churches

THE turn of the millennium brought a sharp rise in the number of evangelical Christian churches in Zimbabwe. Until the late 90’s there were a few traditional churches dominated by the Roman Catholic Church and the mainline protestant churches like Anglican, Baptist and Methodist churches. There were a few homegrown churches such as ZAOGA, AFM, FOG as well as religious sects such as the Mapositori and other cults. Zimbabwe has no official state religion and other religions like Islam, Judaism, Rastafarianism and Buddhism etc practice freely.

Guest Column: Mirriam T Majome

Previously Christian churches generally conducted their evangelising and other good or bad works quietly and discreetly without attracting too much attention and public scrutiny and some still do. Society seemed to be in harmony and the religious establishment appeared to be balanced and did not seek to hog the limelight as it does now. Things changed around the turn of the millennium and the prevailing quietude of the church was disturbed. Suddenly church and religion were in everybody’s face when waves of radical Christian evangelism swept the country.

Local charismatic preachers discovered the power of the television and imitated American TV evangelists and took over various media platforms to promote their religion. They presented a radical departure from traditional Christianity. They promoted a new materialistic and self-centred kind of Christianity themed on healing bodily and unspecified spiritual ailments and claims of deliverance from alleged evil spirits. Almost all of them promised financial prosperity, instant gratification and an earthly kind of salvation in exchange for financial donations to the church.

It was a radical departure from the old fashioned Christian values which had promoted perseverance, long suffering, piety, delayed gratification and turning the other cheek. This instant material results oriented Christianity resonated with a large swathe of the populace weary of poverty caused by the two decades long economic depression. The healing dimension coincided with the tail end of the crippling HIV and Aids pandemic of the 90’s decade.

The sustained economic malaise also exacerbated the social, mental and bodily ills so the promised quick fix antidotes by glib smooth-talking preachers found many easy takers desperate and hungry for messages of hope. Many church congregants are simple people and gullible and ever ready to lap up anything said by the preachers. They hear no evil about them and defend them vociferously against any criticism

This discussion is in the context of the announcement by the proprietor of Prophetic Healing and Deliverance Ministries Walter Magaya that he has found the cure for Aids. The alleged cure is being advertised and sold as immune booster capsules costing between $500-$1 000 per small bottle. The popular charismatic preacher claimed that he had tested the cure on humans and succeeded. The claim that he conducted human trials raised the biggest questions on issues of legitimacy and ethics. There are strict laws regarding clinical trials and experimentation on human beings and animals. All clinical experimentation of humans falls under the Research Act Chapter 10:22. Even qualified doctors cannot just perform medical research on their patients.

The case of the disgraced British medical doctor Richard McGown who carried out illegal anaesthetic experiments in the 1990’s on poor vulnerable Zimbabwean women is an example of how not to conduct medical research. The Medical Research Council has to approve all human clinical trials using very rigid approval criteria. Animal research falls under the Scientific Experiments of Animals Act Chapter 19:12.

Magaya’s claims of human trials and the ensuing furore around his cure claims expedited the need for government to start thinking seriously about regulating churches and faith groups.

A regulatory agency is a public authority or government agency responsible for exercising autonomous authority over some economic or human activity within a country. Regulatory agencies play an oversight role in the industry to keep things fair and up to standard. Examples are the Civil Aviation Authority, Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe and the Energy Regulatory Authority, among others.

They are created to implement and enforce specific laws and establish professional standards in the particular industry they apply to. Regulatory bodies have legal status and are capable of suing or being sued.

As it is there is no regulatory mechanism that monitors church affairs and licences churches such that it is a free for all arena. Anyone can open a church and have absolutely unfettered reign under the guise and cloak of ‘faith’. Being regarded a woman or man of God implies being above scrutiny.

There should be no field of human endeavour beyond scrutiny and regulation because all human beings are fallible. Church business and faith matters affect a large portion of the population such that they cannot afford to be left to their own devices and to self-regulate. The Zimbabwe Council of Churches is not a statutory body and has very limited self- regulatory powers. It’s biggest drawback is that it is a voluntary organisation and has no real powers to compel compliance as would a state agency.

There are too many human rights violations and criminal acts committed within churches by the clergy that by now government should have woken up and realised that there is a need to protect people from unscrupulous religious leaders. In the realm of religion, even ordinarily intelligent and well-balanced people are vulnerable to the whims and excesses of their religious leaders.

It is not about gullibility but due to the traditional top down structure of religion emphasising obedience to authority with little room for questions. This makes the religious realm a conducive environment for abuse and devious behaviour by authority figures.

Not a single congregant is exempt from the potential of church excesses and the devious behaviour of religious charlatans and con artistes. This is evidenced by the fact that even very intelligent people are routinely conned out of their money and possessions by these preachers. This is done through various mechanisms built into church systems like tithes and offerings in exchange for Godly blessings promised to them by other human beings like themselves.

There is no recourse except criminal sanctions for the few who are brave enough to break free and report cases of abuse or theft. They are discouraged from doing so by other church members who are more interested in protecting the church and preacher’s image. The few cases that are reported to the police are just a trifling sample of the huge numbers of crimes that take place in churches. Complaints filed against some of the lesser church leaders do not go far because they are handled internally by the church hierarchy. Offenders are sent off with a warning or demotion and strong words and the victim sent off with a prayer and words of comfort. However, when the apex preacher himself commits the crime, only the bravest congregants dare challenge him and bring him to book otherwise the matters are just swept under the carpet.

The issue of church abuse is so serious that it is no longer enough to issue ministerial statements in condemnation of church excesses whenever something warrants attention. More practical action needs to be taken. Government needs to craft policies and set up a regulatory structure. A few progressive African governments are making inroads into regulating churches and from next week we shall look at the regulation of churches internationally and in Africa.