- “Newly formed churches Advisory and Arbitration Council exclusive”-Muslims
- Bahá’í Faith say they were not consulted and not included
- Festinah Bakwena appointed Societies boss
- Dada-led Muslims Association writes a protest letter to govt
A week before its launch, the newly established Societies Advisory and Arbitration Council, has already paralysed and divided local religious denominations who are currently at war over exclusivity issues following the exclusion of Non-Christian religions in its establishment.
The council which is led by the former Directorate of Public Service Management (DPSM) Boss and Ombudsman, Festinah Bakwena, comprises only church leaders from Botswana Christian Council, Evangelical Fellowship of Botswana and Organisation of African Instituted Churches (OAIC), a move that has raised suspicion from the non-Christian faiths.
The ten-member council was established following among reasons, a polluted religious environment and countless challenges the state was facing most of which were decided by the courts. The council’s mandate will be to guide and advice the minister, to assess and review matters from the Registrar as well as to arbitrate disputes, engage in promoting and developing policy.
Bakwena in a brief interview with The Botswana Gazette confirmed her appointment but said she is not in a position to respond on behalf of the council as it is yet to be launched. “We will be meeting soon and only thereafter can I make comments,” she added.
The minister responsible, Edwin Batshu in a brief interview said “The council will deal with matters involving any registered church or religious denomination”. Experts however argue that the model is exclusive and ill-advised because non-Christian religions are not part of the council and that their interests are not represented.
Around 2014 in a meeting with President Ian Khama, proposals were made by faith-based organisations where many were in support of an all-inclusive ‘religious council’. Asked about the progress on the proposal, the BCC General Secretary Reverend Mosweu Simane said it was long presented “to the ministry responsible but it appears the issue has died a natural death because it has not been mentioned anywhere in a long time.”
Sha Hassan a leader from Botswana Muslim Association said they are shocked to have learnt of their exclusion when they thought they were still discussing the best modalities which will be all-encompassing to address religious issues.
“We do not know anything about the newly formed council. We were still discussing the modalities and other issues relating to any establishment. Recently we have been worried about the progress on such discussions not knowing that an alternative has been found,” he said, adding that the exclusion of other religions was an unfortunate move. Recently, Islam which is the third largest religion in Botswana was said to be one of the fastest growing religions in the country following Christianity and indigenous beliefs. The Muslims raised concerns about the ‘Christianlization’ of the state and have written a letter to government and are still waiting for a reply. Hassan confirmed the letter but said he was not willing to go into the details of the letter.
The Muslims are not the only ones worried: The Bahai Faith community said they do not know anything about the council and have never been consulted. “It’s all news to us, mind you the Bahai faith has got around 3 000 members and a couple of centres around the country,” said Bahai Faith National Secretary, Meena Sabet who said their church is governed by what is known as the National Spiritual Assembly.
Botswana is a circular society, a position which essentially seeks to preserve the religious neutrality of government and cultures. Government in 2015 rejected a motion by Gaborone North MP Haskings Nkaingwa who had requested that Botswana be declared a Christian state because of the religion ‘s massive following. The 2011 population census counted Christians at 79.3% Botswana government however said there were no plans to declare Botswana a Christian state.
Asked for his views on the dispute, a theological expert, Dumi Mmualefhe said that the most accommodative way to church problems would have been through a religious council and not what the government has established. The newly formed council, it is understood, will have powers for conducting the vetting process, registrations and dealing with the infiltration of false pastors as well as making rulings on the commercialization of religion.
“Religious issues need religious leaders and organisations. We need an independent body which shall be free to make decisions which will not be subjected to government approval or disapproval,” Mmualefhe added.
His views are that the exclusion of non-Christian partners is ill-advised. “The exclusion of other religious denominations could mean among things, no freedom for them and more problems for them. One other challenge is that there are some churches which do not affiliate to OIAC, BCC or EFB while others are transnational. What are we going to do about them,” he said, advising that a one-size fits all strategy was not suitable, saying the approach was discriminatory. “Discrimination can be by exclusivity or inclusivity,” he said.
Efforts to contact the Hindus who are also said to be unhappy at their exclusion were futile at the time of going to press. There are over five Hindu temples in Botswana, including the Sai Temple and ISKCON Temple in Gaborone. Most Hindus in the country are of Indian descent while Muslims are mostly of South Asian origin. Batswana have however in recent years embraced the religion in numbers.