JULY 2, 2015
A court in the Karongi district of Rwanda upheld the right to religious freedom for eight students who are Jehovah’s Witnesses. At issue was their refusal to participate in religious classes for reasons of conscience.
The majority of schools in Rwanda are affiliated with religious organizations. Some of these schools require students to attend their religious services and pay church taxes. Since schoolchildren who are Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse to do so, school authorities expelled 160 of them between 2008 and 2014. While this nationwide issue is ongoing, the case in Karongi, Western Province, demonstrates that Rwandan authorities can successfully deal with religious discrimination.
Religious Discrimination Motivates School Expulsions
On May 12, 2014, school authorities expelled eight Witness students, aged 13 to 20, * from the Groupe Scolaire Musango School in Karongi for refusing to participate in a religious service. When they were expelled, their parents reported the matter to the Rwankuba Sector Executive Secretary, who directed that the Witness students be admitted back to school. Not satisfied with that decision, the school authorities changed their tactics and accused the students of disrespecting the national anthem because they refused to sing it. On June 4, 2014, just two days after the students were readmitted, the police came to the school and arrested them.
The police detained the students in jail for six days. Officers threatened and verbally abused each of them and beat the two oldest students for allegedly influencing the younger ones. Despite the mistreatment, all eight refused to compromise their religious beliefs.
Court Exonerates Schoolchildren
The police released seven of the students on June 9, 2014, and the prosecutor discharged the youngest from the case. However, the police continued to detain the eldest for nine more days. The judge then ordered his provisional release under judicial supervision, pending the court hearing on October 14, 2014.
At the hearing, the judge questioned each of the students. Speaking on behalf of the others, one of them explained to the judge that the real reason the school had expelled them was not for their refusal to sing the national anthem but for their refusal to pay church taxes and attend religious services at school.
The judge then asked the prosecutor to produce further evidence to substantiate the charge of “disrespecting the national anthem.” When the prosecutor pressed the students for more details, the students verified that they had shown no disrespect when others sang the national anthem.
In its written decision released on November 28, 2014, the Intermediate Court of Karongi ruled that refraining from singing the national anthem “should not be considered as an act of desecrating or disrespecting it.” The court’s ruling upheld the law, exonerated the children, and may help to end religious discrimination in Rwanda’s schools.
Plea to Respect Fundamental Rights
Jehovah’s Witnesses in Rwanda are grateful that the outcome for the students of the Groupe Scolaire Musango School was so positive. However, in other cases, Witness children who are expelled because of their religious beliefs have no recourse but to change schools. Some children cannot continue their education because their only alternative is a private school that charges tuition beyond their family’s means.
Witness parents seek the same opportunity for their children as other parents do. They want their children to develop life skills and to become productive members of society. Jehovah’s Witnesses hope that this positive court ruling in Karongi will promote respect in all Rwandan schools for children’s right to freedom of conscience and religion.
^ In Rwanda, the age of majority is 21 (Article 360 of the Civil Code).