HARARE – While the white garment-donning apostolic sects used to pray into the night, a new by-law regulating open space worship has set 6pm as the cut off time for church services.
The new by-law, Control of Worship in Open Spaces 2016, will see Harare City Council (HCC) regulating how various churches operate on municipal land upon approval from the local authority.
Concern has however, been raised by councillors over how some churches are continuously occupying municipal land illegally.
According to the new by-law, prospective public worshippers should have ablution facilities and potable water that would have been inspected by an Environmental Health Officer (EHO) at the proposed site.
Although an application to worship in public may be filed through the EHO, the city has the discretion to approve or decline the application taking into consideration the Public Health and Environmental Acts.
The by-law also states that worship time would be set
between 10am and 6pm. According to environmental committee minutes, once the by-law has been advertised in newspapers, it will become fully operational.
However, Kuwadzana councillor Wilton Janjazi raised concerns that it could take long to effect the law since council has no money.
“We need to reclaim our land and make proper use of it but if we cannot do that then by-laws will be useless. We cannot continue to complain about the same issue,” he said.
Janjazi also raised health issues with regard to ablution facilities, arguing that most churches operated with temporary toilets posing a hazard to communities they worship in.
However, acting town clerk Josephine Ncube said council’s failure to advertise was because they had not serviced their advertising bill with newspapers.
She said once the problem has been rectified, the public would be notified of the new law.
“No one is being prohibited from worshipping but it needs to be done in an orderly fashion. Churches should simply apply for authority to use council land and once
approved, terms and conditions will be negotiated as per any transaction,” she said.
Ncube highlighted that conditions of worship include where the churches will be situated to avoid a noise nuisance in residential areas as well as the erection of ablution facilities for health purposes.
She said this will be done so that council can account for those who are using their properties as well as facilities such as water and sewer.
Objections to the by-law during its drafting process were received from the Pentecostal Apostolic Church, Johane Masowe-Chishanu apostolic sect, Harare Province Central Fellowship Apostolic Church, Ebenezer Holy Church and the Council of Apostolic Church of Zimbabwe.
Among the objections was that the curfew from 10am to 6pm infringed upon freedom of worship and assembly.
“There is no clarity as to what permanent or temporary toilets meant. It had been said that if temporary toilets refer to those portable toilets used at functions such as weddings, this would have financial implications as well as logistical implications in so far as the disposal of the waste is concerned.
“It is also not fair to single out churches yet night clubs, bars… also contribute to noise pollution,” read part of the objections.
Concerned Christian Leaders Network Zimbabwe (CCLNZ) was of the view that the 48-hour notice for churches to vacate the occupied open spaces was too short.
The religious network group argued that since council had dragged its feet in enforcing open space worship, ample time should also be given to churches to evacuate or regularise their structures.
“There cannot be justice where there is no fairness. Churches should first be given notice in writing to have their structures regularised if that option is available, or where they have to vacate, say adequate notice equivalent to the period needed to vacate the premises without suffering irreparable loss.
“It’s not like churches are being asked to vacate premises they have been operating from for a few days, but years in certain instances,” they complained.
The group also said while council was well within its rights to ask churches to vacate open spaces, the law must be applied in a moral way.
CCLNZ said for council to now assume a heavy-handed approach in their enforcement of the by-law was a betrayal of its own past conduct.
“There must be a degree of humaneness on the part of council in enforcing by-laws. In this instance, it may not be out of order for council to insist on churches vacating their premises, yet the manner in which that is done and viable alternatives provided to the affected churches is equally important,” they said.
Community Working Group on Health executive director Itai Rusike said the provision of sanitation and safe water is critical at the open space worship sites to reduce diarrhoeal diseases.
“The HCC has a duty and power to set standards and codes of practice and ensuring enforcement through inspection.
“Unfortunately, the selective application of by-laws is our biggest undoing in an effort to address public health threats,”
“Some innovative churches have resorted to raising a flag of a certain political party at their places of worship and they automatically become untouchable even if they do not have the authority of the said political party to do so,” Rusike said.