JUNE 9, 2016
The government of Rwanda took a step toward eliminating religious discrimination in schools by issuing an order that mandates respect for the religious beliefs of students. This is welcome news to students whose conscience does not allow them to participate in certain school activities.
In Rwanda, most schools are government subsidized but administered by religious organizations. Enrollment is open to the public, so students who attend these schools may belong to various religions. However, some school authorities have rigidly enforced religious or patriotic activities or required payment of church taxes. They have punished students whose religious beliefs do not allow them to comply. A government minister in charge of primary and secondary education characterized the prevailing attitude among some school administrators this way: “Our students are not allowed to worship in a way that contradicts our beliefs.”
Government Order Reinforces Freedom of Conscience
Government officials stepped in to correct the problem with an executive order containing new regulations intended to eliminate religious discrimination in schools. Article 12 of the government’s Order No. 290/03, published in the Official Gazette on December 14, 2015, states that each school shall respect the freedom of worship of the students and allow them to pray in accordance with their faith if their religion or church is legally accepted and if doing so does not interfere with teaching and learning at the school.
Each school shall respect the freedom of worship of the students.—Order No. 290/03, Article 12
The government’s action reinforces the decision of the Intermediate Court of Karongi, which involved Witness students who were expelled from a local school in May 2014. The school authorities there did not honor the students’ refusal to participate in a religious service sponsored by the school. The court exonerated the students of any wrongdoing, and they were able to continue their education.
In another case, the headmaster of a school in the Ngororero District refused to give report cards to 30 students who refused to pay church tax (not part of tuition or school fees). When the parents of the students complained to the director in charge of education in the district, the headmaster finally relented and gave reports to all the students at the end of the academic year.
Relief for Witness Students
Chantal Uwimbabazi, a Witness student, was dismissed from her school in the Ngororero District because she would not attend the school-sponsored Catholic Mass. She endured ridicule from her classmates and others and was unable to continue her education for an entire year. She eventually enrolled in another school farther from her home and with higher school fees, a hardship for her widowed mother of humble means. When Chantal learned about the new regulations, she was relieved. “I think other students in similar circumstances in religious schools will also enjoy their education without any violation of their rights,” said Chantal.
The new regulation is in harmony with the Rwanda Constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion and the right to an education. Students who are Jehovah’s Witnesses and their parents look forward to seeing incidents of religious discrimination come to an end. They are grateful for the government’s action to protect the religious freedom of schoolchildren.