Police in Rwanda have arrested six pastors they accuse of being the “masterminds” behind a plot to defy a government order closing churches.
The directive took effect two weeks ago and has seen at least 714 churches closed for not meeting regulations such as standard structures, sanitation requirements, location of churches and certificates of operation.
The suspects allegedly held “illegal meetings with bad intentions” following the closure of more than 700 churches and a mosque in the capital Kigali.
Among the those arrested are flamboyant Bishop Innocent Rugagi of Redeemed Gospel Church Rwanda and Apostle Charles Rwandamura of United Christian Church (UCC), according to the BBC.
Others are pastors Fred Nyamurangwa, James Dura and Emmanuel Shyaka Kalisa and Reverend Emmanuel Ntambara.
One of the suspects was allegedly heard calling the decision to stop the churches from operating “abrupt”, according to the BBC’s Prudent Nsengiyumya.
Rwandan police spokesman Theos Badege told news agency AFP on Tuesday the six Pentecostal preachers “conducted illegal meetings with bad intentions aimed at calling for the directives to be defied”.
“After the suspension of churches that did not meet required standards, some church leaders began illegal meetings intended to defy and obstruct the directive,” he added.
“Police began investigations to find the masterminds behind this illegal act.”
Most of the are churches closed were small Pentecostal ones.
A government official told the BBC that some of the more than 700 buildings shut down have already reopened after they were approved by inspectors.
“The authorities issued a warning to churches that make noise and disturb peace in residential neighbourhoods,” Mr Justus Kangwagye, the Head of Political Parties and Civil Society Department at the Rwanda Governance Board is quoted to have said.
According to a proposed new law, all preachers must have theological training before opening a church.
Government official Justus Kangwagye told the BBC’s Focus on Africa programme that they simply required the churches to meet “modest standards”.
Last week, President Paul Kagame commented on the ongoing operation saying that he was surprised by the large number of churches. He pointed out that had there been proper planning, the situation would not have got to a level where the government has to close churches.
“Seven hundred churches in Kigali? Are these boreholes that give people water?”
“I don’t think we have as many boreholes. Do we even have as many factories? But 700 churches, which you even had to close? This has been a mess!” He said.
Mr Badege said the six pastors will arraigned in court but did not indicated when.
Additional Reporting by Agencies.