About 1 106 "illegal" churches have been given a 30-day ultimatum — which ends on November 4 — to regularise their operations or be shut by the government, Zambia News 24 has reported.
The move is the latest government response in Angola to improper commercial activities and human rights abuses it says are being carried out by certain churches — especially churches established by foreigners (e.g. from DR Congo, Brazil, Nigeria and Senegal), which make up more than 50% of the churches in the nation.
The director for religious matters, Francisco de Castro Maria, has reportedly told media there are 84 legal churches in the country, 1 006 awaiting recognition and 2 006 churches that have already been shut down.
100 000 SIGNATURES
One of the requirements for the registration of the 1 006 churches is that they must each present at least 100 000 signatures of followers, distributed in at least 12 of the nation's 18 provinces — a condition that few if any of the churches are expected to meet by the deadline.
A WhatsApp message currently circulating widely in South Africa — believed to be from an Angolan pastor — says that the government ultimatum is tantamount to persecution and is a demonically-inspired attack on the Church. Calling for urgent prayer into the situation, the speaker says the attack on the Church includes new laws requiring pastors to have theological degrees, and a prohibition on house churches and evangelism.
However, a church leader in Southern Angola told Gateway News today that while he understands the fears of affected churches, he believes the government is targeting abusive church leaders and that bona fide churches that apply for registration will be accommodated even if they do not meet the 100 000 members target.
Rev Toni Ngula of the Angola Presbyterian Church in Cunene said prominent church leaders in the capital, Luanda, were meeting with government officials and solutions were being sought.
He said his own denomination was among the 1 006 given notice to regularise or be closed.
"We as pastors and prophets have been doing wrong things. But I believe the doors are still open for good churches and those that are ready to stop doing bad things," he said.
'GOD IS IN CONTROL'
"God is in control. I know He is the owner of the Church and He will fight for His Church."
The Angolan government has been grappling with the problem of delinquent church leaders for some years.
President, João Lourenço, who in September last year, succeeded José Eduardo dos Santos who ruled for 38 years, appears determined to confront the issue in the nation of 26 million people whose population is overwhelmingly Christian, of whom about 55% are Catholics.
A draft law on freedom of religion that includes requirements for pastors to have theological qualifications, was submitted to the National Assembly in August. And in his State of the Nation message last week, Lourenço condemned pastors who he said extorted money from poor people, promised miracles that were not fulfilled, and abused the health and dignity of their followers.
He appealed to "the whole society" to intervene in the fight against illegal religious practices.
All the signs indicate that Angola faces a situation similar to that in South Africa where the Church needs to provide a lead in combating religious abuses, while at the same time defending vital religious freedoms and avoiding state capture of religion. Pray for Angola.