Parliament’s rejection of its proposals on the regulation of religious groups left the commission with no choice but to head to the highest court in the land, the commission's Anton Knoetze said.
The killing of five police officers in eNgcobo in the Eastern Cape could have been averted if Parliament had acted on red flags the commission had raised on the dangers posed by the cult operating in a church in the area, Knoetze said.
“What the commission is proposing is that you can’t just have stand-alone groups," he said. "The problem comes with stand-alone people. They claim to be independent and they’re accountable to no one and they can do whatever they want.
“They need to become part of a peer group that can advise you when you’re out of line.
"So it’s not the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural Religious and Linguistic Communities that will give the guidelines. That will come from the peer group,” Knoetze said.
This body would help regulate churches and ensure they complied with guidelines. Religious groups would be free to affiliate with any body that they felt they belonged to," he said.
“For instance, all the Anglican churches can affiliate under the umbrella body for Anglicans, all the charismatic churches can affiliate with the charismatic believers. So we will not prescribe, but this can’t continue as it is," he said.
The commission had anticipated that its proposals would be accepted by Parliament and enacted in law, and were astounded to find that Parliament did not take the recommendations seriously.
Parliament’s portfolio committee for cooperative governance and traditional affairs had dealt with the commission’s proposals, he said.
"When we were in Parliament on January 30 we red-flagged the eNgcobo church. We said these people were dangerous and there would be loss of life. We alerted Parliament and they did not pay attention. We even got in touch with the traditional leaders to alert them to this cult,” Knoetze said.
“Parliament said they wanted us to relook at our proposals, which we brought before Parliament on February 21 - the day of the eNgcobo police shootings in the Eastern Cape."
However, Michael Swain, execu- tive director of Freedom of Religion South Africa, said all the commission’s recommendations in its report to Parliament were already enacted in law. The problem was the effective enforcement of the laws.
Application of laws - such as in the case of Limpopo pastor Lethebo Rabalago, known as the “Prophet of Doom” for spraying insecticide in congregants’ faces saying it would heal them - was needed, he said.
Rabalago was recently found guilty of contravening the Stock and Agricultural Remedies Act 36 of 1947 dealing with pest-control operators and was sentenced to three years in prison or a R30 000 fine by the Mookgophong Magistrate's Court in Limpopo.
Other controversial pastors include Lesego Daniel, who made his congregants drink petrol, telling them it had been converted to pineapple juice; and Penuel Mnguni, who is alleged to have fed live rats and snakes to his congregants.
“The biggest problem that we have with the commission’s report on the commercialisation of religion and abuse of people’s belief system is that their recommendations declare that they, as a state institution, will be the final arbiter of religion,” Swain said.
This would be a situation where the state controlled religion, meaning the state could decide who could preach and declare what was unacceptable in terms of people’s religious beliefs. This would be unconstitutional.
“The Constitutional Court has already ruled that even if a belief is bizarre, illogical or irrational, it is nevertheless valid. The question then comes when people try to hide criminal activity and call it freedom of religion,” Swain said.
The eNgcobo tragedy was a result of a criminal organisation, not a church, with sex slaves and illegal weapons, he said.
The commission knew about this, was empowered and had a duty to address it by activating organs of state such as the Hawks, the SAPS, or the Department of Social Development and recommend action to take. But it had not done so, he said.