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Charity Begins At Home

By Mitiku Adisu

With the new “Charities and Societies Draft Proclamation" [CSDP] Churches and related organizations in Ethiopia may be entering a new phase in their relationship with the State. As things now stand, charitable associations within the country are barred from receiving more than 10% of their financial support from foreign sources. Ethiopians living abroad are classified as “foreign.” Organizations must be locally funded and controlled or else they will be denied registration. Registration could also be denied or revoked "if there is sufficient reason to believe that the proposed charity or society is to be used for unlawful purposes or for purposes prejudicial to public peace, welfare or good order in Ethiopia." What constitutes “sufficient reason” or “unlawful purposes” “prejudicial to public peace, welfare or good order” will be a subjective call by the government with little or no legal recourse for the charitable organization. That is a dangerous precedent.

True, religious organizations are exempt from some aspects of the proclamation—for now. We say “for now” because the timing and the sweeping nature of the Draft Proclamation unfortunately can not hide the long-term intent of the government; it should be noted here that the Draft has gone through three revisions [the earlier ones harsher than the final draft.]

If our memory serves us well, Derg’s policy toward churches also took the same approach - innocuous and nationalistic at first but progressively turning out to be divisive and too controlling.

The believing church must think through the implications of the Draft as well as her relations with missionary and aid societies. Indeed, some groups may be using the church/religion cover to raise funds and create institutional careers for themselves. The church must distance herself from such groups and not provide authorities with excuses that will make the leadership vulnerable to unnecessary and avoidable censure.
The Draft Proclamation, on top of the global economic meltdown, could also be a blessing in disguise as any budget shortfall will ultimately bring the church to her knees in prayer and wean her from depending on foreign funds. Dependence on and/or uneven “partnership” with foreign societies is one of the reasons for the absence of a strong and broadminded indigenous leadership in the church today.

It is not far-fetched to assume that the Draft Proclamation premeditates the 2010 elections which in one sense is what the recent activities are all about. The 2007 Population and Housing Census and the numeric growth registered by Protestant churches, for example, seem to have confounded the Orthodox and Muslim faithful. As a result, some commentators have come out in favor of fomenting resentment. And a certain streak of resentment often results in creating unholy alliances. [See here and here.]

The dangers inherent in the CSDP are several, few of which are in [a] the arbitrary powers the law hands to the government [b] limiting public participation [c] the idea that government knows [d] bureaucratic hurdles that could lead to inattention to emerging needs of individual institutions [e] the potential for spying on each other, cook the books, etc and the mistrust that creates among the citizenry [f] the fact that the government is in denial that it receives way more than 10% of aid from foreign sources; it should not assume it is not subject to public accountability [g] violation of the Constitution [Article 14]: "Everyone shall have the right to form associations for whatever purpose."

In regard to elections, all we can say is that Christians must come out in force and vote. Voting, however, is not a matter for local or denominational churches to promote. Rather, the exercise is/should be an individual’s civic duty and should remain as such. The basis for voting should follow values that honor God and defend rights of those created in His image; hence, voting awards good character, effective governance, competence as well as censures sowing discord, corruption, and ineffectiveness. In other words, values that guide a Christian should transcend ethnic, religious, gender and socioeconomic status.

In retrospect, it is not coincidental that an article by a Melaku posted a few weeks ago went out of its way to praise the ruling party for the “freedoms” enjoyed by churches [see our comment here]. Whether Mr. Melaku’s sentiments were well-intentioned or not one thing must be made clear: the church of Jesus Christ cannot serve two masters or be patronized by any earthly power. The Church is under the authority of Jesus of Nazareth and her freedoms are realized only in obedience to his beck and call. That is not to say the church breaks the laws because laws are there so "we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness" (1 Timothy 2:2). Indeed, the church's freedoms are in taking a stand for Jesus wherever his Lordship is called into doubt.