STATE CONTROL OF RELIGION IN SOUTH AFRICA?
There are various messages doing the rounds in South Africa that might seem similar in content but need to be addressed individually. And even though they seem related, they address different inquiries.
The messages are related to religious freedom in South Africa. According to Andrew Selley, founder and director of FORSA (Freedom of Religion South Africa), “creating an open door to make it illegal to preach certain aspects of the gospel” should be seen as “the greatest threat to religious freedom in the history of South Africa”.
PLEASE NOTE that this article is NOT addressing the bill or the inquiry as mentioned in the emails, but the content of the emails. We fully endorse the work and involvement of FORSA and in no way do we try to undermine, or duplicate, their critical role in the quest for religious freedom in South Africa, nor do we underestimate the urgency of the matter.
Instead, we look at the content of the emails in order to help believers to RESPOND instead of REACTING.
As believers. we are instructed and encouraged in Scripture to not have “a spirit of fear” but instead to have one of “power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7). We are also encouraged that if we should “suffer for what is right” we are blessed (1 Peter 3:14). This verse continues: “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.” And 1 John 4:18 tells us the following: “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”
According to Scripture, Christians should be more concerned about their witness than about their rights. And in this regard, it is concerning that the Church might lose her witness even before the possibility of losing her freedom.
HOWEVER, this does not mean the urgency of these new proposed laws and investigations should be ignored or overlooked.
But it does require that we convey the truth and not rumours, that we respond in love and not react in fear, and that we fulfill our godly role of reconciliation instead of creating suspicion.
FORSA and INcontext have been in conversation with one another, and we attempt to share their points of view as clearly as they have been communicated to us.
THE FIRST EMAIL
The first email states the following (in various forms):
- that a new bill is intended to limit constitutional freedom of religion and the gospel of Jesus Christ spreading in South Africa
- that a new law will go to parliament during March 2017, which will regulate religious freedom in South Africa
- that, if the law is passed, Christians will not be able to read or quote certain passages from the Bible
- that failure to obey to the new law will carry a three-year prison sentence
- that repeat offenders will be jailed for up to 10 years
- that petitions against the proposed new law can be submitted until 1 December 2016
WHAT THE LAW PROPOSES
It is important to note that the proposed bill currently has no reference or intention to limit constitutional freedom of religion and the gospel of Jesus Christ spreading in South Africa, as mentioned in the messages. There is no intention to regulate religious freedom in South Africa, nor are there any proposals that anybody would be sentenced to prison for “reading or quoting certain passages from the Bible”.
FORSA rightly pointed out that: “The Hate-speech Bill obviously does not say that it intends to limit religious freedom, because if it did, it would never pass parliament and would be red-flagged too quickly. The Bill does not expressly need to say that it intends to limit religious freedom however, to do exactly that! The Bill, by being over-broad, does in fact open the door to make it illegal to preach certain aspects of the gospel. The Bill expressly states that anyone hurt emotionally by something someone says would be entitled to open a case against the offender under ‘hate-speech’.”
So, even though there exist real issues at hand that could limit future Christian activities, the emails and messages misrepresent the actual content of the proposed law and convey assumptions about what could happen.
According to SabinetLaw (http://www.sabinetlaw.co.za/justice-and-constitution/articles/draft-hate-crimes-bill-track) – a movement that aims to consolidate government, parliamentary and legislative information in a way that will answer questions on the background as well as the legislative process that leads to the adoption of a specific piece of legislation – the draft Hate Crimes Bill will address the following issues in South Africa:
- The Draft Bill will create an offence of hate crimes and hate speech and criminalise any conduct which amounts to an attempt, incitement, instigation and conspiracy to commit a hate crime.
- Hate speech via social media and online will fall within the scope of the proposed legislation.
- Mention was also made of the Draft National Action Plan (NAP) to Combat Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance released for comment at the beginning of 2016.
- The NAP aims to provide South Africa with a policy framework to address racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance at both a private and public level.
- According to the latest speech, the “overall goal of the NAP is to build a non-racial, non-sexist society based on the values of human dignity, equality and the advancement of human rights and freedom”.
- The comment period on the Draft NAP was extended in July 2016 to 31 August 2016.
- According to the department, once all the input and comments have been considered, a revised NAP will be submitted to cabinet for approval.
- The department stressed that the Draft NAP has been amended to ensure its alignment with the UN Practical Guide on Developing National Action Plans against Racial Discrimination published by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
- A policy on the integration of refugees into South African society is also under construction.
WHAT SCRIPTURE TEACHES
Colossians 4:5-6 “Act wisely toward outsiders, redeeming the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone…”
Ephesians 4:29 “Let no unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building up the one in need and bringing grace to those who listen.”
1 Peter 3:15 “But in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to articulate a defense to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But respond with gentleness and respect…”
In light of these Scriptures, Christians should be wary of voicing opposition to the proposed bill, as it focuses on promoting dignity and respect. The fact that many Christians are now rallying to sign a petition against this Bill could indirectly imply a support of hate speech and a leaning against the values of human dignity and respect. This could have serious implications for Christian witness in a time where the Church needs to be a voice of reason and a source of dignity.
There is no doubt that there needs to be an assurance that the bill does what it intends to do and that Christians need to defend the freedom of truth. But equally important is HOW we defend it. This is where the content of the emails fails, but the petition as given on the website is valid.
It is better to lose your Christian freedom than to lose your Christian witness.
INcontext and FORSA agree on the urgency of the matter but also that the social media posts and the forwarding of emails and text messages should not be used to create wrong impressions or to promote political agendas.
Andrew Selley of FORSA wrote the following:
“Both the CRL commission recommendations, as well as the hate-speech Bill, have a good intention, which we commend in intent. Our concern is that that they are both over-broad, and in trying to address a specific issue, will endanger religious freedom and cause great harm to the Christian Church as byproducts if they are not amended. Our petition commends the intent of the hate-speech Bill, but asks for the public response deadline to be extended, to give the churches and various organisations enough chance to process, as well as asking the bill to ring fence religious freedom, so that the protections afforded by the Constitution will not be lost by various religious communities. Our concern is that the Bill as it stands is too broad, and creates opportunities for anyone offended by what may be preached even in the pulpit to open up legal cases against the Church. Were a pastor to speak out against issues such as prostitution, sexual immorality etc, anyone offended by such speech would be entitled by the law to open up hate speech claims against the offender, with severe legal consequences.
Our petition regarding the CRL commission in the commercialisation of religion is also to ask the commission to extend the deadline given, so that organisations can properly respond, as well as to propose alternative legal means to deal with those who are scandalously using religious freedom for profit or harm. We contend that there are laws in place, and that we will work alongside the commission to help them create case law against such people, but that the proposal as it stands will do great damage to religious freedom, and open the door for religious persecution within our nation. While the CRL claims that they are not proposing State regulation, it is our sincere belief that the CRL recommendation will do just that. For a state empowered peer review council to decide what is acceptable within any religion is a gross interference in religious freedom and we must resist it.
We request that the body of Christ urgently respond and sign the petitions as well as share the concerns to protect these vital freedoms.”
Petition can be found at: http://forsa.org.za/
THE SECOND EMAIL
The second email refers to an official inquiry by the CRL Rights Commission into religious practices in South Africa (mentioned by Andrew Selley above) and should not be confused with proposed bill for hate speech.
This email read as follows:
“Please pray this morning for a key meeting that is taking place at the CRL Rights Commission at 11am. They have produced a report recommending the State regulates religion. There is a huge groundswell of objection to this proposal from across the denominational and faith communities of South Africa as it is a blatant and unacceptable erosion of our constitutional right to freedom of religion. Please pray that their eyes and ears would be opened and that they would listen to the alternative solutions that will resolve the issues and problems they have identified. Please pray that the Body of Christ in South Africa would fully awaken and stand against this assignment of the enemy to silence our witness and our freedom to believe, teach, preach and live out our faith in Jesus.”
Sadly, this proposal came about because the Church did not respond effectively to the unbiblical practices carried out by some ‘pastors’ who encouraged believers to drink petrol and step on snakes. This is not an attempt by the government to “silence our witness and our freedom to believe, teach, preach and live out our faith in Jesus”, but an attempt to regulate irregularities (happening in the name of Jesus) that should have been addressed by Church leaders. It is wrong to assume that Christians are the victims in this matter, and believers should not embrace a victim mentality. Vulnerable people were exploited by corrupt ‘Christian pastors’, and future practices of this nature need to be prevented.
Once again, there should be a greater concern by Christians about their witness than about their freedom.
We should pray for Christian leaders to stand up in the name of Jesus and to proclaim Biblical truth and standards. Believers should pray that the Church will fully awaken, but as Christians, we do not necessarily need to pray ‘against’ these developments. They are the consequence of a part of the Church acting corruptly, and our prayers should first focus on restoring righteousness within the Body of Christ.
Andrew Selley responded to the INcontext concerns about the content of the email as follows:
“Regarding the CRL commission proposal, we must resist it. There are existing laws in place to catch the unscrupulous pastors and what the commission proposes will open the legal framework to restrict religious freedom. The challenge comes in the definition of ‘harmful practices’. For example… According to the finding by the HRC it is already a crime to teach any scriptures which speak of parents lovingly chastising their child to attempt to shape their character. We have already proposed ways to deal with those who do damage, but for the State to ultimately decide who can/can’t preach will do great damage to the gospel and religious freedom – as seen recently in Russia and throughout history.”
1) There was an official enquiry by the CRL Rights Commission into religious practices in South Africa in response to unbiblical practices that happened in 2015, when pastors from independent churches encouraged believers to drink petrol, eat grass and even snakes (various individuals were harmed as a result of these practices). The CRL commission also launched an official inquiry into the use of religious practices that solicit money from members in return for blessings and miracles. The CRL commission further investigated the legal framework of religious institutions in South Africa as a result of tax evasion and other illegal financial practices.
2) The main reason for the outcry against the proposed regulation of religion in South Africa (as per the proposal from the CRL commission) is the proposal that religious organisations and their leaders (clergy) must be registered with a ‘Peer Review Council’ and obtain a licence before they are allowed to practice and teach their religious beliefs.
The proposed legal framework reads: “There must be a Peer Review Council, which will consist of peers from each religion that will give permission to operate to individual religious leaders. No license may be withheld on the grounds of doctrine unless such doctrine is deemed potentially harmful, physically and mentally, to those who practice it, or if such doctrine is not found in the tenets of the religion and which bring the religion into disrepute.”
In essence, if the Peer Review Council decides that a religious practice is harmful to the public, that religious institution and its leaders will be prohibited from practicing such beliefs.
3) The three- and ten-year prison sentences (mentioned in the circulating messages and emails) are not related to the CRL’s proposed regulations of religion that will be presented to parliament in 2017 – these prison terms relate to the Prevention and Combating of Hate Crimes & Hate Bill (the Bill is available for download at http://www.justice.gov.za/legislation/invitations/invites.htm).
4) The mention of “reading or quoting certain passages from the Bible” is repeated from another chain message concerning the aforementioned Hate Crimes & Hate Bill.
FORSA has started a petition to block the proposed regulation of religion in South Africa as proposed by the CRL Rights Commission, stating the following:
“On 26 October 2016, the CRL Rights Commission released its Preliminary Report on the ‘Commercialisation’ of Religion and Abuse of People’s Belief Systems. The report recommends the regulation of religious institutions and religious practitioners in South Africa.
The proposals contained in the CRL Report represent an unacceptable erosion of [the] rights to freedom of religion and association guaranteed by the South African Constitution. It is not for the State, or any other body, to decide which religions qualify as a ‘religion’, or to sit as ‘judge’ over the doctrines of religious institutions, and decide whether they can operate.
While the Commission has valid concerns regarding isolated incidents taking place in the name of faith, through the enforcement of existing legislation, education and provision of resources, we believe there are viable alternative solutions to every problem the Commission has identified.
We as the faith community of South Africa have a right to remain free to believe, teach, preach and live out our religious convictions and beliefs, without the control and interference of the State. The State should respect and help protect our constitutional right to freedom of religion and association.”
For more information, and for reliable updates, please visit the FORSA website: www.forsa.org.za
The CRL Rights Commission’s preliminary report of the hearings on the commercialisation of religion and abuse of people’s belief systems can be viewed here.