East Africa National Religion

Fr Gaetano pens a letter on places of worship remaining closed and President Museveni misrepresenting the Popes

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By Rev Fr Gaetano Batanyenda (Uganda) and Nazarious Natukunda (US).

On March 18th, faced with the COVID-19 pandemic, President Museveni took a right and bold decision: he put the country under lockdown and suspended public gatherings including places of worship, pubs, weddings, funerals, music shows, rallies and cultural events with immediate effect.

Subsequently, security forces were deployed to enforce the presidential directive. In so doing, they tortured, maimed, brutalized some people and killed at least six for defying the presidential directive. The LDU has since been withdrawn for retraining.

In its first days, the lock down exposed, among other evils, corruption, double standards and selective enforcement of the presidential directive, especially in the distribution of food. Double standards have again emerged in the easing of the lockdown. A few days ago, government officials, including the Minister of Health, have been sighted flouting the presidential directives by convening meetings even without observing SOP. Some members of the opposition accused of flouting the same directives were arrested even though they had observed SOP.

What is more disturbing though is that the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs Prof. E. Kamuntu and the NRM vice chairperson for Eastern Region Mike Mukula chose to meet their campaign agents in some churches. The irony here is that the churches which have been lumped together with bars, lodges and schools have not had restrictions against them eased. What an act of discretion! Keeping places of worship closed to worshippers while opening them up for political meetings and rallies.

Another deeply disturbing matter came out of the president’s address to the nation on Tuesday July 21st. For reasons best known to himself the president chose to tell a blatant lie about one Vicar of Christ and Successor of St. Peter and to misrepresent facts about another. In justifying why scientists need to be listened to, the president falsely alleged that Pope Urban VIII ordered the hanging of Galileo Galilei, an Italian astronomer, physicist and Mathematician who got into trouble with the church over a controversy between science and doctrine. Whereas it is true the Galileo was put under house arrest, he died of natural causes at the age of 77. I believed the president is aware, but chose not to mention it, that Pope John Paul II, in 1991, was humble enough to apologise and admit that the church was wrong though it acted in good faith. For those who did not know, Galileo is to those who despise the Catholic church, a stereotyped symbol of the church’s supposed rejection of scientific progress. The president could not have found a better example to silence the presumed protests from religious leaders even if it meant openly telling a lie.

The president further used video clips of the current Vicar of Christ and successor of St. Peter and head of the Catholic Church to justify maintaining restrictions on places of worship even though they could adhere to SOP far better than arcades and shopping malls. In the said clips, the pope is vested in purple. Purple is a liturgical colour used in Lent and Advent.  Beginning with Easter Vigil on 11th April, the church’s liturgical colour changed to white and it has since changed to green after Pentecost which fell on May 31st. The president needed to tell the nation what the pope is saying today and what he would probably say to the Ugandans in their concrete circumstances today.

Why did the president, who rarely holds religion and religious leaders in high regard and esteem, use the examples of two popes, though falsely, to justify his double standards in easing restrictions? Anyone who went through mchaka mchaka (cadre courses), knows what I am talking about and why I say that the president does not esteem religion. There is no doubt that religion is an essential spiritual service but the Movement ideology has never accepted this fact. Religious leaders can effectively and efficiently adhere to SOPs far better than those who run arcades and malls. Moreover, many religious leaders personally know members of their communities and have their contacts. There is no reason whatsoever to justify the continued lock down of places of worship without allowing them to operate under SOPs and to lump them with pubs except that they are not considered essential by the President. Needless to say, religious services can be limited to less than an hour.  In his desperate effort to justify his double standards, the president went to the extent of lying against one pope and misrepresenting the facts about another. This should alarm religious leaders and all who love and seek the truth. This was perfectly calculated: using the example of Pope Urban III the president wanted to discredit religious leaders in case they complained about double standards in easing restrictions while the misrepresentation of the facts in the videos of Pope Francis was meant to set religious leaders against their followers. The followers would be led to believe that their religious leaders are not listening to the Pope if the latter complained. This is blackmail at its best.

In dealing with religious leaders the president has always employed intimidation and blackmail if they are objective and critical of him, and gifts and donations to control and manipulate them. The president has never been comfortable with anyone whose message, appointment and assignment he cannot control, speaking directly to the wanainchi. He always wants to ensure that people are not told what he does not want them to hear. Moreover, he does not tolerate anyone being considered higher than him in authority. He might have tarnished the pope’s image so that Catholics may think  that  popes are fallible after all; and the videos of Pope Francis might have been intended to show that he is saying the same thing as the most powerful man in the world or to dupe Catholics into believing that the pope endorses what the president does. Have you ever asked yourself why he appoints some religious leaders to government positions without consulting their superiors?  Just to show that he wields more power over believers than their religious leaders.

The President has always called names of religious leaders who are critical of him including substituting their titles with Mr., threatening to crash them and even to take over their jobs claiming that, after all, he knows the bible well having mastered it in scripture union. He called traitors those who criticized the age limit constitutional amendment and rebuked as arrogant those who criticized him for brown envelopes and voter bribery. Some of his ministers have demeaned religious leaders saying that their job is to hold collection baskets. During the national prayer for the country in the time of the pandemic, at state house, on March 21, he appeared to be dozing while the leaders of major religions that he had invited prayed. That says a lot about his sentiments toward religion and religious leaders. I do not think he has given up on the plans to have mainstream churches register as NGOs.

It seems restrictions on arcades and boda boda were lifted because the leaders of the associations of these industries went to the president on their knees to petition him. Religious leaders may, if their want restrictions on places of worship eased, have to consider this option.It is common knowledge that as long as you submit to the president’s wishes and show to others that he has a key to all your problems, you can do almost anything inappropriate and you will get away with it: you can flout his directives as longer you are a good cadre, sleep in parliament as long as you wake up to vote his agenda, steal billions as long as you do not support the opposition, rig elections as long as it benefits him , be a corrupt judge as long as you are biased in his favour, and all you will get is a pat on the back and some lame excuse to exonerate you embellished with some inaccuracies in defense of your past good record before the public. All he cares about is loyalty at all costs.

For their followers’ spiritual needs, the religious leaders have nothing to lose if they   paid allegiance to the president and petitioned him to ease restrictions on places of worship. He would love it. They always go to him for handouts and other favours; so why not this noble cause? Moreover, they lost it all: their prophetic voice, being a moral conscience of the political leadership and a voice of the voiceless the day they accepted brown envelopes, donations to their projects and monster cars as quid pro quo from the president per se and not from taxpayers. Religious leaders squandered their relevance in Museveni’s world. If they’re not corrupted with gifts from the president, they are intimidated or blackmailed by him and/or his proxies. The result of either of the two has been the same; religious leaders have been rendered expendable and so is religion in Museveni’s Uganda. Has the time for religious leaders to reclaim their independence and relevance come? Let us see if they will stand up to the challenge.

For both political and religious leaders, Paul has this to say: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”  Philippians 2: 3-4.

Aaron Ainomugisha https://twitter.com/AaronAinomugis3

Aaron Ainomugisha
A Ugandan Investigative and Development Journalist (Broadcast & Print), News Anchor with www.croozefm.com,also, Founder/CEO Rise Against Poverty Organization (RAP Uganda) 'Be Confident', a poverty eradication,human rights advocacy, mindset change, organization. Email aaronainomugisha7@gmil.com If you want things perfectly done,do them yourself. Commenting on things you have not understood Makes you a 'Stupid Debater'. Avoid It. https://twitter.com/AaronAinomugis3