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  • NGO Bill - Index of Opinion and Analysis

  • Churches and the NGO Bill
    Noel Scott, Christians Together for Justice and Peace (CTJP)
    September 02, 2004

    The address at the meeting of 28th August 2004 at St. Marys Cathedral Bulawayo

    The government is about to promulgate a bill to register NGOs which will be administered by the Minister of Public Services, Labour and Social Welfare or any minister the President appoints. The declared purpose of this Bill is to protect public interest by ensuring that NGOs are administered properly and use donor and public funds for their intended purpose. The Minister will operate through an NGO Council which will have five NGO representatives and ten from the Government. He will have power to inspect NGO operations, to withdraw licences and to prosecute offenders. So the freedom and power of NGOs will be drastically curtailed.

    An NGO is described as any foreign or local body whose object is in summary to assist and give support to persons in need, to uplift their standard of living and to promote and protect human rights and good governance.

    Need for caution
    While the bill purports to protect the public interest we have good reason to be cautious. AIPPA and POSA were introduced to protect the public interest but those who live with and have become victims of this legislation have learnt otherwise, often to their pain. In fact when the government legislates to protect the public interest the reality is that it aims to CONTROL the public. Other examples come to mind – Urban Councils were elected by the public but the government has seen fit to override the wishes of the people, by discrediting, oppressing and even replacing the elected officials. The latest victims are the non-government schools. In view of this ruthless policy to control us even more we the people need to take an informed and determined stand and say "Enough is Enough"

    Over the years the NGOs, some of which are arms of the church and churches have freely ministered to the needs of the people in the specific areas of nutrition, hunger relief, health projects such as clean water and latrines, immunisation and disease prevention and control, conservation, water storage, agricultural education, animal husbandry, crop development….. Their object is not just to meet immediate needs but to equip people to realise their full potential, to build up confidence and self respect, to know and defend their rights. Their policy is to set people FREE.

    So why does the government now want to bring in this new registration bill? Two main reasons:

    Why this bill?

    1. For some time now it’s a well known fact that government has been controlling food relief as a vote buying exercise. Control of the NGOs would legitimise and facilitate this. The consequences for the NGOs who are largely foreign funded and for those who are deemed to belong to the opposition could be disastrous.
    2. The government was embarrassed and angered by the recent A.U. Report on human rights abuses in Zimbabwe, and blames NGOs for submitting false information to the A.U. Commission. What the government doesn’t seem to realise is that many people however oppressed and down trodden know their rights and don’t suffer in isolation, information comes to light, wounds are seen, testimonies are heard, people speak, for the Truth cannot be gagged or suppressed in today’s world of investigative reporting and electronic media.

    NGOs who are engaged in "governance’ or human rights work and are foreign funded will no longer able to function. With an election looming the reasons are obvious.

    The bill purports to exempt the church from registration for the church is described as "Any religious body in respect of activities confined to religious work". What is religious work? In the Minister’s mind it’s probably limited to what goes on in church buildings, behind closed doors - hymn singing, praying, reading and exposition of the scriptures preferably focussed on heaven and how to get there….. baptising, marrying, burying the dead.

    Archbishop Pius obviously steps outside the bounds of this definition when he speaks about the plight of people in Zimbabwe who are casualties of hunger and malnutrition, victims of intimidation, oppression, torture, of the many who are perpetually on remand on baseless charges, of the gagging of the independent media denying people a voice, the list goes on.

    How should the churches respond?
    So how should churches respond to this Bill? Should we submit ourselves and our ministry to what the Minister would term religious activities and allow him to write our agendas? Would we have to register to feed the hungry, heal the sick and be a voice for the oppressed?

    To answer any of these questions we need to be sure about our vocation and ministry and where our authority and mandate lies. Our vocation and authority and commission comes from Jesus as His comes from the Father and the Holy Spirit. Note it doesn’t come from the Minister! At his baptism, Mark 1 v 9-11 in that moment when heaven was opened to Him he had a vision of the kingdom and was anointed and empowered by the Holy Spirit for the ministry that lay before him. That ministry is announced in His first sermon in the Synagogue at Nazareth where he opened the book of the prophet Isaiah and read the passage Luke 4 v 16-21.

    "The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind;

    To set free the oppressed and announce that the time has come when the Lord will save His people"

    The overall message of Jesus is that he came to save, to liberate His people and that is always a threat to those who hang on to power at any price. This was not a popular message to the religious hierarchy in Jerusalem who oppressed people with the demands of the law and grew rich through the takings of the temple sacrifices. It was an ominous and threatening message to Herod and Pilate who imposed their will on the people through ruthless taxation and tyrannical laws….

    Jesus could have stayed in the synagogue or in the temple doing religious work as the priests did but he chose to put His message into practice. When John the Baptist sent his disciples to Jesus to enquire if he was the promised Messiah he said:

    "Go back and tell John what you are hearing and seeing: the blind can see, the lame can walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are brought back to life, and the Good News is preached to the poor" Matthew 11 v 4-6.

    Jesus’ ministry was to promote life, life in abundance, but right from the beginning the forces ofevilwerearraignedagainsthim.In the temptations, the devil tried to buy him off not just with the offer of a ranch but the whole world. Time after time the devil through the Jewish authorities tried to arrest and kill him and finally he was put on trial before the Sanhedrin, Pilate and Herod. He was crucified and buried but God raised Him from the dead and today he lives as Lord and King. Truth and Goodness have triumphed over evil bringing hope to the victims of evil everywhere.

    The churches mandate
    The church is the Spirit filled, Spirit led, and Spirit empowered Community. We receive our mandate from God to proclaim in the power of the living Lord, the Kingdom of God. Jesus said – " As the Father has sent me so I send you" John 17 v 18. At our baptism we share the vision and are anointed and empowered as Jesus was, to proclaim Good News to the poor, set free the oppressed, give sight to the blind, liberty to the captives and to proclaim God’s Jubilee of justice, of peace and reconciliation. It’s a call to liberate people but also to do battle with the forces of evil who seek to control people’s lives, but believing in the victory of the Cross we fight with confidence. The battle is not new, when Peter and John were challenged for healing a cripple by the Jewish leaders and told not to speak of Jesus they replied that they must obey God and not man. Acts 4 v 19.

    The conflict between good and evil is on going, it’s even within ourselves. As St Paul says, the good that I would I do not, the evil that I don’t want to do, that I do. Evil seeks to control and destroy, good seeks to free, to liberate and it’s a conflict that perpetually exists between church and state.

    It needs to be said at the beginning that church and state receive their authority from one source, God. There is not a religious God, a God whose interest is religious work and who resides in the churches doing churchy things and another God who confines his activities to the secular field of commerce, industry, health, education, parliament, agriculture etc. There is one God, the creator God, the Liberator God, and both Church and State are answerable to Him. Obviously it would be very convenient for Church and State and indeed for all of us if we could put God into a religious or a secular box. If we could box Him we could control Him! The Jews tried to do this when they crucified and buried Him but He broke free, He refused to be boxed!

    Rulers have a place in God’s plan and Jesus recognised this. When asked about paying taxes to Caesar, a corrupt and harsh ruler, he reminded us of our twofold duty to God and neighbour - give to Caesar what belongs to him, taxes for the benefit of the community and to God what belongs to Him, love and obedience. But remember that Caesar like us is made in the image of God, he is answerable to God, for his deeds.

    St Paul says – "The Powers that be are ordained by God" Romans 13 v 1. Governments have a purpose in the Divine plan to provide laws, order, justice, peace, health, education for the benefit of society and the benefit of the people but that doesn’t give them licence to behave as they like. Like the Jewish Kings of old they are answerable to God for they are servants of God and of the people. The church too has a mission and purpose to proclaim the Kingdom of God, to care for and serve the people without fear or favour and to promote life in abundance. That is our vocation and like the government we are answerable to God if we fail.

    Seen in the light of the Gospel, the NGO Registration Bill is a deliberate attempt to control people, to oppress and enslave them for which the government is answerable to God. We the Churches therefore call on the government to repeal POSA AND AIPPA, to withdraw this Bill, to respect and listen to the people, to promote human rights, to desist from intimidation and oppression and to work with the NGOs and churches in the spirit of God to whom we are all answerable to promote the life and well being of all the people of Zimbabwe whom we are privileged to serve.

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