By Elias Munshya, BA, LLB, MA, MA, LLM, MBA, MDIV.
March 6, 2017 was a sad day for Zambia. Eight souls perished in a stampede as they gathered to receive food handouts from a church organisation known as Iglesia Ni Cristo (INC). This church organisation was first registered in the Philippines in about 1914 and from humble beginnings and ridicule it has grown in its outreach efforts around the world. One such efforts in Zambia led to it organising an event where it promised to distribute food hampers to the poor of Lusaka. With this promise, thousands turned out. Perhaps due to poor organisation and lack of good crowd control, 8 of our people unfortunately died. May the souls of our departed rest in eternal peace.
With tears in our eyes, and a strong sense of loss, the government of the republic of Zambia (GRZ) reacted swiftly. Government ministers addressed the nation. They explained what had happened and assured the nation that they are doing thorough investigations. They also expressed profound sorrow from our head of state. Lungu mourned with us. Tyranny, however, must be confronted regardless of where we are at in our heavy hearts. In moments of disappointment and pain, we must remain vigilant to safeguard the most sacred of our liberties. Nothing erodes liberty like giving in and giving up in the face of fear. Mourning we needed to mourn and investigations we needed to explore, the state, however, in addition to other measures decided to ban the Iglesia Ni Cristo. And this honour apparently fell in the hands of the Minister of Religious Affairs and National Guidance, Rev. Godfridah Sumaili. She addressed the nation and announced the ban of the Church of Christ (Iglesia Ni Cristo). It is my opinion that the ban was excessive, unnecessary and must be vigilantly rejected. For the following reasons.
First, the primary role of the church such as INC is religious worship. INC has several members in Zambia. They mostly meet in smaller houses of worship and have a very reasonable number in attendance each week. INC, however, organises a few large meetings such as crusades. It so happens that the church perhaps punched above its weight and underestimated how many people would show up to receive free food. What Rev. Sumaili perhaps needed to do was to ban the church from having large gatherings, rather than banning it from meeting at all. Banning the church from worship disproportionately violates their freedom of worship. It does not make sense to ban a church from worshipping for contravening the law that applies to something they did outside of worship. If for example there is a mine accident, it is reasonable for the state to intervene and ban a company from mining until safety issues are resolved. That is perhaps what was needed here – to ban the church from holding large gatherings while leaving its freedom to worship intact. The problem was not worship, the problem was the church holding a large gathering with little to no crowd control.
Second, the ban sends a chill down the spine of all religious denominations in Zambia. The Ministry of Religion and National Guidance must have no role in banning churches. It does not register them and therefore it has no business banning institutions that it does not register or regulate. Consequently, the government of the republic of Zambia does not regulate Zambians’ exercise of the freedom of worship. If we let Rev. Sumaili’s ban in place, it will set a very bad precedent where she might have the liberty now to begin banning churches indiscriminately. Political power need not be unreasonably trusted. Rev. Sumaili could be a good person, but her exercise of state power must be tempered by reasonableness. Erosion of liberties does not happen suddenly. It always starts very subtly. It is up to Zambians to be vigilant and push back against the state’s interference in religious liberties.
Third, the Ministry of Religion and National Guidance (MRNG) is a new ministry trying to find its raison d’etre. We must not let that be the banning of churches for reasons completely unrelated to Zambians’ freedom of worship. The dread we must all have with a ministry that seems to be wanting to regulate how Zambians worship is the impact that such a ministry may have on constitutional liberties. Zambia is a Christian nation. But the Christian nation declaration confers no reliable or enforceable rights on Christians as opposed to others. The Zambian state lacks the competence to arbitrate between competing religious doctrines. The MRNG should know that it has no role and no business whatsoever in guiding how Zambians will choose to worship or not worship. If at all there is any misunderstanding as to the role of the MRNG and its minister, let it be known, that Zambians will not sit idly while the state plays with their liberties like ping-pong.
Fourth, I am aware that Zambian government ministers are mostly people of conscience and the constitution accords them the liberty to worship. But the individual ministers’ religion should have no bearing whatsoever in how they promulgate public policy, particularly as far as churches and religion are concerned. The Zambian state has no business regulating how Zambians choose to exercise their constitutional liberty to worship. A few years ago, when around Easter police and immigration officers raided churches to hunt for illegal immigrants, I condemned such activities because they disproportionately targeted religious denominations. The state must not be sending guns to disrupt people gathered to worship God. The Zambian constitution’s religious liberty is afforded to both legal residents and illegal residents. The state should not be barging into churches to arrest worshippers who do not have immigration papers. If the state wants to arrest illegals, let it do so anywhere else and not in church. Religious freedom is too precious a liberty to sacrifice at the hand of political convenience.
I urge Hon. Sumaili to reverse her ban on the Iglesia Ni Cristo. The ban makes no sense and it is not rationally connected to her trying to prevent another stampede from happening. Stopping INC from worship limits the church members’ freedom of worship. If it is the stampede the state wants to prevent, it can take measures aimed at reducing those stampedes. Banning the church out-rightly is disproportionate and sets a very bad precedent. And we must not allow that to happen. Not in Zambia.