KIGALI – There are preachers everywhere in the Rwandan capital. From minibuses to markets, from hospitals to the streets, all day, they try to get people to join their church.
Early September, at the Nyabugogo market in Kigali, market-goers were surprised to see the Sainte-Famille parish priest. He had come to the market with worshippers from the Emmanuel Catholic community, to preach.
This is quite uncommon for Catholics. “We are preparing to celebrate the 100th anniversary of our parish. It is a great opportunity to bring Catholics and non-Catholics together without having to wait for them to find us,” explains Rémy Mvuyekure, the parish priest.
He does not want to be left behind by all the hordes of preachers who have been taken over the streets, hospitals and hotels, Bible in hand.
Itinerant preachers are booming in Rwanda. Their goal is to reach out to those who do not go to places of worship -- or do so only on their day of prayer: Friday for Muslims, Saturday for Adventists and Sunday for Catholics and other Christians.
Rev. Antoine Rutayisire from the Episcopal Church of Rwanda explains that modern society built churches, so that now people who preach in the streets are seen as freaks by locals. But “Jesus himself said to spread the gospel in every nation, and it does not say anywhere that sermons must be delivered only in churches,” he says.
Bishop Smaragde Mbonyintege, President of the Episcopal Conference of Catholic Bishops in Rwanda agrees: “It is not forbidden to preach in the streets. We should encourage this church,” he says referring to Sainte-Famille Parish, whose members often preach the gospel door to door.
Disturbing the peace?
Yet these street preachers have sparked major controversy in Kigali. “Streets belong to the people. When preachers improvise on the pavement, they disrupt the lives of those who had not planned to listen to them. They should stay in their churches. It’s as if they were setting up a hardware store on the road,” says a merchant from Kigali.
People are complaining about those who stand up in mini-buses to preach. Some ask for permission, but others do not.
“Some people make fun of them, but what they say gives me strength. I cannot follow them everywhere, but listening to them for a few minutes is enough,” says Immaculée Karinganire, a mother from Kigali.
In the streets of the capital, they preach from dawn till dusk. Even during heat waves, they wait patiently for worshippers to sit and listen to their sermons. With nothing but their Bibles, they often arouse pity from their listeners. “Some give them bottles of water, others, moved by their message, discreetly slip bills in their pockets,” says Pierre Célestin, a journalist at the local KFM radio station.
Their sermons cover every topic: religious conversions, adultery, fraud, charity. Yet these sermons are forbidden by Rwanda’s law. Sheikh Saleh Habiman, in charge of registering political parties, NGOs and religious organizations at the Rwanda Governance Board (RGB) explains that there is a legal framework governing which religions may and may not set up shop in Rwanda, and in particular where they are allowed. “Those who preach in the streets without a written authorization are outlaws.”
In their defense, preachers claim that they do not disturb public order. “As we are preaching, police and security officers walk by and do nothing. Because they know that we are not a threat.”
They also say that police forces ignore soccer fans who ride buses around town to the sound of screaming vuvuzelas, or concert promoters who drive around announcing their shows on loud microphones. “And we’re the problem?” asks a preacher.
Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.
"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.
Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.
But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.
The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."
Criticism of any 'royal project'
The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.
Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.
In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release
Freedom of speech at stake
"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."
The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.
The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.
Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.
Shift to social media
While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.
The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.
Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".
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