We recently received a concerned email asking, what’s the deal with this report?
Tanzania’s Minister of Home Affairs, Mathias Chikawe, has announced that churches and religious institutions that publicly oppose the country’s new constitution will be deregistered, beginning from 20 April. Tanzanian Christians oppose a bill that would introduce Kadhi (Islamic) courts across the country’s mainland, in the new constitution. Read more…
The report comes from the Barnabas Fund who have given it the headline, ‘Churches and religious institutions publicly opposing new Tanzanian constitution to be closed, says government’.
Is there some kind of emergency? Is the Tanzanian government out to get Christians?
First, let’s be clear that the established churches are not in danger of closure. Even the article itself says as much, when a source notes, ‘We know they can’t close mainstream churches’. This is hardly a case of doom and gloom for all Tanzanian Christians. It’s a pity about the Barnabas Fund headline — but we’ll come back to that in a minute.
The news of a government threat certainly has the ring of truth. Tanzanian officials have been known to use heavy-handed tactics in an attempt to maintain order as they see it, and the government has placed bans on media organisations in recent times. Any group can be on the receiving end, however, not just Christians.
The truth of the situation, as indicated by local media coverage, is tied to Tanzania’s struggle to conduct itself as a diverse society. The English-language newspaper The Citizen has a report on the churches’ appeal as well as the threat made by the government minister, followed by an opinion column. The government is in the midst of negotiating a new constitution which must satisfy both major parties of the union, the mainland and the islands, each of which retains a distinct identity. The kadhi courts bill is just one of a number of delays to date.
This situation is not a simple case of the state vs. Christians, or Muslims vs. Christians. Why then does the Barnabas Fund article suggest otherwise? Although their Tanzanian sources are no doubt speaking accurately, the Barnabas Fund has framed things in terms of a single story: the narrative of set-upon Christians. Stories like this are designed to evoke Christian sympathy and galvanise a response.
Things are more complicated, however. We need context. We need to ask what’s actually at stake, rather than simply wondering how Christians en masse can say their piece and avoid backlash. The situation is still revealing itself even to Tanzanians. This calls for prayer, but not alarm or outrage.
Are Christians under threat in Tanzania? There are known to be pressures on Christians in Muslim-majority communities on the islands and the coast. A follow-up piece from the Barnabas Fund goes some way to clarifying this, but let’s be clear: by all accounts the Tanzanian government is more intent on keeping the peace than displacing Christians.
The Barnabas Fund exists to help the persecuted church, but in cases like this, persecution is the only angle under consideration. That angle, mixed with half-truths and misrepresentations, is a recipe for fear. Only with a bigger picture of Tanzania can we offer understanding and love to its people and its church.
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.