LETTER | Allow churches to protect their congregations

The recent testimony of rape and abuse of power in the Tim Omotoso trial shocked our metro and our nation.
Even though the trial remains sub judice, many church and civic society groups have nevertheless felt compelled to voice their sympathy and support of the victims, and have expressed their strongest condemnation of any such harmful, criminal and illegal behaviour.
As the Nelson Mandela Bay Church Leaders Network, we agree that any unscrupulous behaviour by those entrusted with religious authority is totally unacceptable and that offenders should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
In terms of its constitutional mandate, the CRL Rights Commission is obliged to investigate any reports of abuse of religious rights and freedoms, and we welcome such investigations.
We also agree that it has the full right and mandate to refer such evidence to the SAPS and the judicial authorities for proper prosecution of offenders.
While we endorse the mandate of the CRL to investigate and prosecute all offending religious leaders, we are deeply concerned about what appears to be potential overreach of its mandate and inconsistency in its application.
The CRL needs to be reminded that its primary mandate is to “promote and protect” the rights and freedoms of cultural, religious and linguistic communities in SA.
Such protection and promotion cannot be overextended to also include an overall right to regulate and control religious groupings and their practice, as was recommended in its report.
This overreach flies in the face of the very religious rights and freedoms that it is mandated to promote and protect.
The majority of churches and denominations in SA do in fact abide by the law, and respect the rights and dignity of their people.
We are alarmed at the recent call by the parliamentary portfolio committee on women in the presidency for “government to tighten legislation and to close churches, where necessary”.
We are particularly concerned that this unqualified blanket call for regulation of religion follows a meeting between the committee chair and the chair of the CRL, Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva.
Over and above the potential overreach by the CRL and resultant threat to the right of freedom of religion, it also appears that the CRL is being completely inconsistent.
After two full days of hearings in February 2018 with concerned religious leaders about the constitutional dangers of state regulation of religion as recommended in the CRL report, the department of cooperative governance and traditional affairs conceded that such danger did exist.
It accordingly recommended that the CRL should convene a national consultative conference of religious leaders with the aim of finding solutions for self-regulaas tion without compromising on freedom of religion and without state interference.
The chair of the CRL verbally endorsed this process two weeks ago when she said that she did not want there to be any confusion about state involvement in the regulation of religion and that the religious community now had the responsibility to develop self-regulatory structures.
We are, therefore, deeply concerned that the CRL chair now seems to have changed her mind.
There have been some very significant developments in the arena of self-regulation by religious grouping in SA.
For example, the SA Council for Religious Rights and Freedoms was formed in the early 2000s by a group of academics, religious scholars, religious leaders, statutory commissioners and international legal experts, and in consultation with all major religious, human rights and media groups in SA.
After extensive consultation it adopted the Charter for Religious Rights and Freedoms in 2010, which currently carries the endorsement of an estimated 25 million people in SA.
The council is also currently involved in a nationwide consultation with most religious groupings to finalise a constitutionally compatible code of conduct for religion in SA.
We ask that the government, the CRL and other constitutional bodies stay within the parameters of their constitutional mandate and allow the variety of religious groupings in our country to consult, investigate and implement ways of protecting our congregation members from abuse.
-The NMB Church Leaders Network..

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