MARCH 12, 2015
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO
“Fighting against discrimination and inequalities is a fundamental [priority] of the National Education.”— Secretary Offices of the Ministry of Education, June 12, 2014.
For several years, Witness children in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) were expelled from schools sponsored by other religious organizations because they would not participate in religious programs. This became an issue because the schools had placed their internal rules above government regulations and ignored the rights of Witness students. The Congolese authorities saw the injustice and affirmed the right for all to receive an education free from discrimination.
Church-Sponsored Schools Follow Internal Rules Instead of Government Regulations
Religious organizations have entered into agreements with the Congolese government to sponsor public schools in areas where there is a need. The agreements clearly state that “children are to be protected from practices that promote religious discrimination and intolerance.” The church-sponsored schools, however, have often had internal rules requiring students to attend and participate in religious programs. A number of these schools have insisted on enforcing their internal rules, disregarding both their agreement with the government and the students’ right to freedom of worship.
The problem became apparent in 2005, when 52 Witness students were expelled from a church-sponsored school in Abumombazi, Equateur Province, because they requested exemption from church services organized by school authorities. The problem escalated as church-sponsored schools in other provinces followed suit. In time, more than 300 Congolese Witness students from all grades were expelled, including those nearing graduation.
After being unjustly expelled from school in 2009, 13-year-old Kanyere Ndavaro wrote: “I am very sad about this damage to my life. I do not know what my future will be.” Kambere Mafika Justin, expelled shortly before his graduation in 2010, said that his life had been “turned upside down.” Although the students were upset at being denied an education or a diploma, they refused to compromise their religious beliefs.
Congolese Officials Uphold Religious Freedom
Parents of the expelled children spoke with school administrators in an effort to resolve the problem but met with limited success. Consequently, the Witnesses pursued the matter with governmental authorities and found fair-minded officials who worked to put a stop to the religious discrimination.
In 2011, Mme. Bazizane Maheshe, the Minister of Education for North Kivu Province, published a provincial circular entitled “Ban Placed on Discrimination Based on Religion,” which described the situation as “deplorable.” The circular addressed the issue clearly by stating: “Students of some religious confessions are subject to discrimination based on internal school rules in disregard of regulations in force in the DR Congo.”
The issue received national attention on September 4, 2013, when Mwangu Famba, the Minister of Education for the Democratic Republic of Congo, published a decree applying to all schools in all districts. The “Circular on the Prohibition of Discrimination Based on Religion” unequivocally stated: “All children have the right to apply to any school without adverse distinction based on religion.” The decree also stated that expulsion of students on religious grounds was “in total violation of the standards and laws in force in the Democratic Republic of Congo.”
Many schools have obeyed the official directives and have welcomed Witness students back into the classroom. A few schools, however, have resisted. Thus, on June 12, 2014, the Ministry of Education published a memorandum reinforcing the September 2013 decree and citing the new framework law on education * that was issued by the President of the DRC. This reminder addressed the root cause of the problem by highlighting the importance of fighting discrimination and stressed the primacy of national and international laws over internal school rules. The Minister of Education also appointed investigators to visit schools throughout the country to ensure that they abide by the decree. No doubt, these measures taken by the government will bring long-standing, positive results.
Benefits to Many
As Congolese schools act in accordance with the law, all students can expect to receive an education unencumbered by religious intolerance. School children will learn to accord respect to all people, regardless of their beliefs. In so doing, Congolese schools will not only uphold the Constitution of the DRC and the decree from the Minister of Education but also set an example of fairness for its young people.
^ par. 12 No. 014/004/2014 “The new framework law on Education . . . grants to parents the freedom to register their children in a school of their choice. . . . Fighting against discrimination and inequalities is a fundamental [priority] of the National Education.”