Mobilizing the Rwandan Church to Protect Human Rights
Rwandan President Paul Kagame is personally invested in making Rwanda a country that is committed to reconciliation, human rights and self-sufficiency. Toward that end, Kagame is seeking to mobilize the most powerful social force in his country—Rwandan pastors—to protect human rights and pursue forgiveness in a country that has much to forgive. In 2005 Kagame partnered with Rick Warren of Saddleback Church to develop a plan of action. As Time magazine noted, “Kagame has committed his government to cooperation in a five-to-seven-year self-sufficiency project staffed by Rwandan volunteers but initiated, advised and at least partly funded by Warren’s network of ‘purpose-driven churches.’”
I have spent the last two weeks working with a team of Saddleback lawyers who are implementing this impressive program. Having met with Supreme Court and High Court judges, Ministry of Justice officials, and over sixty of the top Rwandan pastors in the country, I am convinced that in a country where 82 percent of the population are Christians, there is no better vehicle for educating the general populace about human rights than the local church. At the invitation of President Kagame, Saddleback Church has been sending hundreds of volunteer professionals–doctors, nurses, lawyers, psychologists, etc.–to work with local churches to address Rwanda’s most pressing problems.
On the legal front, top government officials have identified three central problems: intra-family land grabbing, domestic violence, and sexual crimes. To address those problems, lawyers from Saddleback Church have drafted a human rights manual for local pastors they can use to educate their members about those issues. They have started with the issue of land grabbing, and future manuals will be developed that focus on domestic violence and sexual crimes.
The problem of land grabbing stems from two key issues: common-law marriage and intestacy. Common law marriage is common in Rwanda, primarily because its is culturally unacceptable to marry in Rwanda without a large dowry and an expensive wedding. Consequently many destitute couples simply start living together without the legal protections that marriage affords. Likewise, wills are virtually unheard of this country, with the exception of the occasional death-bed oral bequests. So women and children in this country find themselves with almost no legal protections when their loved one dies. The consequences are devastating when the husband dies, with his extended family literally kicking the common-law wife and “illegitimate” children off the land.
The Saddleback family manual educates the pastors to educate their members about the importance of documenting paternity, registering marriages and drafting enforceable wills. Having spent several days with local Rwandan pastors, they are hungry for this type of education. They are ill-equipped to explain Rwandan law–which is quite progressive on women’s rights–and they frequently find themselves counseling family members who are forced off their land without any understanding of their legal rights. The pastors were desperate for legal information regarding the rights of women and children struggling with this issue.
It is an impressive project. The result will be a manual that will be sent to thousands of Rwandan pastors with information on the rights of women and children and information on legal resources for families who struggle with land grabbing. Prevention is the principal objective, but for those who are in the midst of a land grabbing dispute, the manual encourages local pastors to work with government legal aid clinics, the National University of Rwanda, and the Christian human rights NGO International Justice Mission to intervene.
The President of the Rwandan High Court said to me last week that human rights do not exist if the people don’t know about them. Mobilizing local ministers to educate Rwandans about their rights is one of the best ways to make the laws on the books effective on the ground. It is also consistent with the Biblical mandate: “Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry.” Exodus 22:22.