The proposal to Parliament by the Commission on Protection of Cultural and Linguistic Communities for an introduction of a bill that will set up a governance framework for the religious sector has found resonance with religious leaders and divinity academics.
Among other far-reaching proposals that the commission is expected to table before Parliament in June, the body will ask that religious organisations be registered like other professional occupations.
Those found to be flouting the regulations or contravening the code could be, like doctors and lawyers, be struck off the roll and not allowed to stand on the pulpit and preach the word of God.
This move follows nationwide hearings, conducted by the commission, after several complaints of abuse of churchgoers by some pastors. The bizarre acts include making congregants eat grass or drink octane as well as spraying them directly in the face with pesticides.
Speaking to the media about the “unburdening report”, the secretary-general of the South African Council of Churches (SACC) Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana termed the phenomena “entrepreneurial” preaching.
Dr Asonzeh Ukah of department of religious studies at the University of Cape Town told The Citizen there are several concerns with how some pastors were extorting money from their congregants.
“There are abuses in the religion industry, generally speaking. Such abuses need to be tackled by the appropriate state agency or law. As a not-for-profit industry, religious institutions are tax-exempt, which means that they are subsidised by the society and the state.
“Therefore, there must be rules to follow and adhere to. The first step is to examine existing laws and regulations of the industry and find out loopholes and how best to plug these before initiating new laws. Making laws that cannot [be implemented] or are difficult to implement is a waste of taxpayers’ money and a diversionary exercise,” he said.
He, however, cautioned that policing the sector might prove difficult in practice.
“Only in China has the licensing of the clergy been experimented and there are many unlicensed clergy persons operating in the underground world of religious economy. It is not practicable in a democracy with constitutional guarantees of religious freedom and practice,” he explained and added that the constitution may need to be amended first before that works.
He believes that although “religion cannot be regulated, religious organisations can”. He says this can be achieved through financial oversight and regular audit and public accountability.
All religious organisations should be accountable.
Religious studies academic Professor Muhammed Haron agrees.
“All religious organisations should be accountable; their books should be open to regular inspections to state structures or independent auditors to show that monies are being channeled in the sectors that it had identified,” he said.
He expressed a concern about the expected outlawing of selling of “blessed water” and “oils” to churchgoers in order to receive blessings.
“Well this is a sensitive issue but needs to be clearly explained to congregants and others; in other words, they need to clearly define ‘blessed water’ and indicate from where this comes.
“Depending on their explanation and the criteria that the commission has set down, the practice may be permitted to continue or restricted,” he elaborated.