KNOW YOUR RIGHTS: The Right to freedom of worship

To Christians, Easter is reason to celebrate as they remember the great sacrifice by their saviour Jesus when he died for their sins and resurrected to give them hope for eternal life. For others, it is a reason to relax and enjoy the long weekend as they get to catch up with their friends and family members.

If you have ever wondered why religious holidays such as Easter, Christmas and Eid al-Fitr are celebrated in a secular country like Rwanda, it is because every citizen of Rwanda has freedom of worship.

This right is provided by article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

This means that every person’s belief about religion is to be respected. If a person wants to celebrate Easter, it is within their rights as a human being. If a person does not believe in Easter because they have other religious beliefs or no religious beliefs, it is still within their rights.

Every person also has the right to change their mind when it comes to religion. For example, a Moslem has the right to become a Christian and vice versa.

Of course even within the same religion, people still have different opinions about their practices. It is a matter of interpretation and what people feel comfortable with. Every person has the right to talk about his/her beliefs, to worship according to his/her beliefs and to live his/her life according to his/her beliefs. Of course, this is to be done while respecting the rights of others and the laws of the country.

While it is often thought that freedom of worship is for adults and children should automatically follow their parents’ religion, this is not necessarily true. Article 17 of the law relating to the rights and the protection of the child protects freedom of expression, thought, conscience and religion of the child.

The article mentioned above states: “Depending on his/her age and level of understanding, the child has  right to freedom of expression, thought, conscience and religion upon advice and guidance by his / her parents or guardian without any duress.”

This means that the parents of a child can guide him/her but they cannot and should not force him or her to be part of a particular religion.

Because freedom of worship is protected by the law, there is punishment for those who infringe on other people’s right to freedom of worship.

Article 277 of the Penal Code of Rwanda sets punishment for anyone who, by violence, threats and insults forces one or many persons or prevents them from practicing religion or celebrating religious festival of a legally recognized religious denomination.

Such a person is liable to “a term of imprisonment of eight (8) days to three (3) months and a fine of twenty thousand (20,000) to three hundred thousand (300,000) Rwandan francs or one of these penalties.”

The same punishment goes for any person who causes trouble, disorder thereby preventing, delaying or interrupting a religious worship conducted publicly in a legally recognised manner.