Thursday, April 26, 2012

Church and State in conflict

‘But if conflict is a constant in Christian history, so is consolation, and the Church’s ancient ministry of comfort to the afflicted goes a long way towards mitigating its record for discord and intolerance.’ (Richard Holloway)

Mmm…. In the context of Uganda and other African ex-colonies, this is claiming a lot for 'consolation', though, on balance, I think I probably agree with Holloway’s statement.  Leaving Alexandria, A Memoir of Faith and Doubt by Richard Holloway talks, among many other things, about the role of the Church in standing up for the weak and excluded. (Thank you, Jonathan, for my birthday present! I couldn't put it down.)

The Church is in the news here just now. The State, of course, is always in the news. Corruption toppling politicians, strong arm tactics with protesters, dysfunctional public services: we have them all. Nothing new there, then. For the last few weeks, however, Church and State in Uganda have been playing for real the familiar but dangerous political game of dare and bluff. Who knows how it will turn out.

The Church is powerful. You see physical churches wherever you go in Uganda, solidly built structures like the one above, which contrast with the dilapidated houses and schools by which they are surrounded. There is a lot of money in the Church here in one of the poorest countries in the world. Quite a lot of it comes from abroad, principally from America where 'church planting' is big business, usually directed at the charismatic Evangelical end of the Christian spectrum. However, the well-established churches are also doing pretty well. While Britain is closing down churches, All Saints Cathedral in Kampala, Church of Uganda (Anglican/Episcopalian) is constructing a brand new 4000-seater to replace its historic building, at a cost of Shs26 billion.

The Church is also newsworthy, unsurprisingly. We have lots of media stories of "pastors' peccadilloes", just like the UK has lots of stories of "barmy bishops". But there are also more serious stories, bizarre though they may appear to outsiders. Here's a taste, before we get on to the real subject of this post.

Recent news stories have focused on the brother of Anglican Archbishop John Sentamu, a Ugandan and favourite to become Archbishop of Canterbury. Sentamu's brother Pastor Robert Kajana (with no family names in Uganda, you can never tell who is related to whom), is the millionaire head of the very odd and very successful Miracle Church. Kajana  has his own TV channel, casts out demons (on TV), allegedly issues bounced cheques (probably not on TV), smuggles alcohol across Lake Victoria (definitely not on TV) and is accused of various sex scandals (well, who knows…?). All of this makes his ‘charismatic’ brother John appear distinctly safe and boring. Smear by proxy, of course, is a common ploy of the UK's Daily Mail, whose feature articles have been circulated in the Ugandan press, and which seems to believe that carefully adding the word ‘allegedly’ to every alternate sentence makes it OK. None of us is responsible for our siblings, thank goodness, and nobody here seems to be the slightest bit concerned. The titillating tales of Pastor Kajana are small beer compared with other press reports on the sorts of things some pastors get up to.

What else have we read recently? Oh yes, it looks as if Uganda’s going to get yet another saint.  The country does pretty well by saints, most of whom bear exotic names like St Kizito. Well, a very dead bishop in Masaka has just been dug up so that the Catholic church can prove that he has special powers. They’re going to ask the Pope to make him a saint. Apparently, and this may simply be newspaper embroidery, his body has already been chopped up so that it can be distributed around the country as relics. This seems difficult to believe. I really can't believe that a church in the twenty first century would actually do this. On the other hand if the newspaper report is true, it is extremely insensitive to say the least, in a country where human sacrifice is still a major concern.

Indeed, at the same time as this holy disinterment was taking place, a notorious child sacrifice case, that of poor sad victim Joseph Kasirye also of Masaka, was wending its way slowly through the law courts, yet again. It was the first court case we were aware of when we arrived a year and a half ago. Lawyers failed then to convict the influential middle class businessman Godfrey Kato Kajubi who was allegedly responsible for Joseph’s dismemberment and sacrifice. Unlike the bishop, young Joseph was unfortunate enough to have his private parts and head removed while he was still alive. Sometimes the Church gets it so, so wrong…. Making an association between dead bodies and miracles is not very wise, as was pointed out by a recent columnist.

Admittedly, the Church got off to a bad start in colonial Uganda, as we are all learning during this 50th anniversary year of independence, though it 'redeemed' itself later. The nineteenth century history of the Europeans, and particularly the British, in Uganda is shameful.  Colourful figures like Lugard, Stanley and Portal were arrogant greedy bullies, who carved up the proud kingdom of Buganda, set about grabbing as much extra territory from other neighbouring kingdoms as possible and got cross when the ‘natives’ didn’t like it, so they grabbed even more. Unfortunately the Church doesn’t come out of it too well either. 

The Church Missionary Society (Anglican and British) arrived first, in 1877, and the White Fathers (Roman Catholic and French) two years later. Interestingly, their arrival came about as the result of a letter sent to Queen Victoria by the Kabaka requesting that she send missionaries to educate his people. I suspect he may have regretted his action later on. Each church was basically a stand in for the mother country. The soldiers grabbed land and the missionaries grabbed souls. During the ensuing religious wars between the different brands of the Church, one of the CMS missionaries, Charlie Stokes, even became an arms dealer. Kabaka Mutesa I tried unsuccessfully to play the Christians off against each other in an attempt to save his kingdom. Mutesa’s successor, Mwanga, failed even more miserably. In 1886, thoroughly frustrated and probably mad – hardly surprisingly – he ended up burning alive scores of Christians, the famous ‘Uganda Martyrs’ sanctified a few years ago by the Pope (cf St Kizito above).  There were also about 70 less famous Muslim martyrs. Church and State in conflict.

Looking at the old photos of the Christian martyrs and realising how young they were (‘pages’ at the Kabaka’s court), it becomes clear that most were child ‘soldiers for Christ', quite probably with immature minds manipulated by European missionaries into thinking that martyrdom was a holy act. Unsavoury religious and military groups do the same thing even now.  No doubt these teenage Christian martyrs burnt to death believing that they would wake up in paradise. How far our views about martyrdom and about what is an appropriate age at which to make irrevocable decisions about one's life have moved on since those times. This is certainly true in Europe and, one would like to think, elsewhere.  

The British surpassed themselves a few years later, when, Kabaka Mwanga having been removed, they put his infant son on the throne as puppet ruler, and then proceeded to divide up Buganda's land, traditionally held by the Kabaka in trust for the people (800,000 of them). Most of the land, 10,500 square miles, went to the colonial government, 350 square miles went to the baby Kabaka and much of the rest to a new ‘gentrified’ class of Bugandan landowners. The missionaries, however, also did pretty well out of the deal, receiving 92 square miles. As it happens, they would use the land to minister to the people whom the colonisers had been responsible for turning into landless labourers. From then on, it seems, until independence, the Church and the colonial State in Uganda were pretty much inseparable.

So that is Holloway's ‘discord and intolerance’ of the Church more or less over with, for now anyway. Fortunately, this poor start to Christianity in Uganda developed into something much more positive as the ‘consolation’ role of the Church came to the fore. Missionaries founded schools and set up hospitals. Their Foundation schools are still among the best today. Many missionaries were utterly selfless and devoted their entire lives to serving the Ugandan people. You very rarely if ever find any criticism of the missionaries coming from Ugandans. The Daily Monitor to its credit has been publishing biographical accounts as part of the 50th celebrations, stories like that of Joan Cox, headmistress of the famous Gayaza High School for girls. Constance Hornby is another good example (see our earlier post Promoting girls' education in Kigezi). The Ugandan churches (both Anglican and Catholic) were among the first in Africa to ordain local priests, with white missionaries very rare these days except among the Evangelical movement.

Since then, issues of Church and State have taken several twists over the years. Christians might have been complicit in the colonising of Uganda, but they were far less compliant later on.  Cardinal Nsubuga was an outspoken advocate of humans rights under President Idi Amin. Amin assassinated Anglican Archbishop Janani Luwum and other clerics who had spoken out against injustice too often and too loudly. John Sentamu of York left Uganda for Britain at that time. As a magistrate he had fallen foul of the regime by convicting one of Amin’s cousins of rape, despite having been warned to find him innocent.

But what about the relationship between the Church and Ugandan State nowadays? Well, the Church is currently wading into some very contentious areas of State activity, all reported in detail in the press. Before Easter, Archbishop Henry Luke Orombi (Church of Uganda) issued a statement on behalf of the Uganda Joint Christian Council (Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox) appealing for an end to political violence on the very day when the government banned activities by Activists for Change (A4C), an opposition pressure group. A4C has been campaigning for freedom of speech, expressing support for Uganda's poor who are getting even poorer under the high rates of inflation (30% last October falling to 20% just now) and condemning the impact of endemic corruption at the highest levels. AC4 also campaigned for the restoration of Presidential term limits (previously two terms of five years), which were removed in 2005 a year before the election in which President Museveni stood for his third term. This is currently his fourth term and he has been in power for 26 years.

Orombi, trying to calm the situation, said, ‘It is legitimate on the part of government and the opposition to hold divergent views on various issues affecting the country but it is not healthy to engage in violent confrontations and running battles.’ (The Daily Monitor)

On Easter Day, Bishop John Baptist Kaggwa (Roman Catholic, Masaka) preached that the use of force to stifle divergent political views would only compound the problem (The Observer 11 April 2012). ‘The correct line for this country is dialogue, not any other means.’  The reference to ‘the correct line’ resonates with Ugandans as it is a phrase used by the NRM, the ruling party, and picked up and used as the title of a book by the sister of Kizza Besigye, the main opposition leader.

The bishop said, ‘We saw the police rounding up people indiscriminately. Some were severely tortured and had to be flown out of the country for specialised treatment. Others had flimsy charges preferred against them. Doesn’t this show that some of us act without reason? .... Looking at what is happening in our country, I feel it is better for us to roll it back to the pre-independence times, because that’s when we had leaders that cared for the general welfare of the population.’

Nostalgia for colonial times is an interesting and surprising view, expressed also by others. We can assume that Kaggwa was talking about twentieth, not nineteenth, century colonialism.

Bishop Kaggwa was not the only highly-placed cleric to make such pronouncements. Also on Easter Day, Archbishop Cyprian Kizito Lwanga (Roman Catholic) preached about ‘the relationship between Church and State, the need to share resources equitably, the restoration of presidential term limits, political honesty of … leaders, the overarching desire or lack of it in fighting corruption and why politics, faith and reason are three sides of the same prism’. (summary by the Sunday Monitor 15 April 2012)

Lwanga said ‘I kindly urge our government to free all political prisoners unconditionally as a sign of genuine peace, reconciliation and justice as we celebrate the Golden Jubilee of our independence.’

He referred to a pastoral letter written in 1961, a year before independence, by the first Ugandan Archbishop Joseph Kiwanuka entitled ‘Church and State’ which makes the case for two guiding principles for the new country of Uganda: that the forms of government may change and that the Church and State can work together for the common good.

Lwanga went on to say, ‘The abuse of political power as well as the abuse of human rights are quite rampant in our society.’

In defending the restoration of Presidential term limits, Lwanga quoted Article 69 of the Constitution which provides for the people of Uganda to have the right to choose a political system of their choice through free and fair elections or referenda.  Assistant Bishop of Kampala Diocese Zac Niringiye (Anglican) repeated the same message in his Easter Day sermon, as did the Orthodox Metropolitan Jonah Lwanga.

The debate about Presidential term limits and the rights of the Church to make political pronouncements has been rumbling on for weeks now, with the ruling party largely discounting the views of the Church and questioning its right to interfere in State matters. 'Render unto Caesar what is due unto Caesar and to God what is due unto God.' The President dismissed the clerics’ concerns saying he would only leave when his current term was up if his own party recommended it. Well, in their caucus two days ago, that is exactly what the NRM didn’t do, although well over a hundred of them (out of about 350 or so) had signed the motion. Another group of MPs has started a campaign to impeach the President, though we can't imagine that this sort of action will get very far.

In the meantime A4C, now banned, has been resurrected as 4GC, For God and my Country, a bold move given that this is Uganda’s national motto.  Church and State again, in a country in which political parties were, until very recently, established on religious sectarian lines. 

Be that as it may, the Anglican and Catholic churches appear to be gearing up for some pretty determined if politely worded opposition to the status quo. Given that 85% of the Ugandan population claims to be Christian and another 10% Muslim, that makes for an interesting few years until the next election in 2016. The Inter-Religious Council in Arua, West Nile (northern Uganda) which speaks for both Christians and Muslims has stated that clerics will stand up to political intimidation.

‘Religious leaders speak for the voiceless,’ said one.

Another said, ‘Unless we fight poverty, our churches and mosques will face challenges and compromise integrity.’

Archbishop Lwanga finished with these telling words.

‘The biggest gift the President can give Ugandans is the smooth transfer of power when his term of office is over. How can your security forces mercilessly flog the very people who pay taxes that is [sic] then used to pay your salaries? We shall continue to cater for both soul and social needs. Those who think that [the] church is doing nothing should stop it because we are contributing massively to developing this economy. If the church is to withdraw all institutions such as schools, hospitals, farms and bank services, then Uganda would remain empty.’

So what looks to outsiders like a power struggle continues, recorded in some detail by the Ugandan press. There are many aspects of the Christian Church in Uganda which we find quite alien. However, it was good to hear these prelates reassert the role of the church in providing 'consolation' to the weak and excluded. In providing that 'consolation', 'conflict' with the State may be inevitable.

NB As with all our posts, any information which does not come from our direct experience has been taken from the quality independent newspapers in Uganda: The Daily Monitor, The East African, The Observer, The Independent and, sometimes, from the government-owned New Vision.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. A fairly good impression of Uganda.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Alfred. You will be aware that this post is 8 years old, therefore a bit out of date.