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Victims of legal and religious conflicts

Children under five years born in Botswana's Johane Apostolic Church have little to smile about now and in the coming months. These infants are caught in the middle of an increasing hostile legal row pitting the sect's leaders and health authorities
Mqondisi Dube

The battle revolves around the church member's decision to defy a government exercise to carry out a nationwide polio immunisation campaign, following three confirmed cases of the disease discovered last month. The immunisation exercise is targeted at children under the age of five.

The church members, commonly known here as the Bazezuru, have steadfastly maintained that their religion forbids the use of modern medicine and health science, preferring a strong faith in the healing powers of Jesus Christ instead.

Founded by a Zimbabwean apostle Johane Masowe in the 1950s, the church has built up a large following in Botswana, Zambia and South Africa with its puritanical appeal and annual religious rites. The church’s members are concentrated in Francistown, the largest urban settlement on the Zimbabwe/Botswana frontier.

Bazezuru women give birth naturally with the assistance of midwives, and have over the years withdrawn their children from formal education, which again is taboo according to their religion.

Following hurried negotiations, Botswana health authorities, under instruction from President Festus Mogae drafted Extraordinary Regulations to force Bazezuru into availing their children for immunisation. Under the regulations, promulgated late last month, it is an offence for any parent or legal guardian to withhold children from a government-sanctioned immunisation programme, now and in the future.

Already, four Bazezuru men have appeared in a local court, charged with withholding their children from the exercise, sparking angry protests from the religious sect. For their part government health officials have intensified their house-to-house campaigns, fortified by the new regulations and stand-by support from police details.

The Deputy Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Health, Patson Mazonde defends the new regulations saying the government has a legal mandate to protect the health of all children in the country, regardless of tribal, cultural and religious affiliations.

He believes the new regulations were designed to ensure that children’s health was put ahead of their parents’ religious considerations. “There is an urgent need to ensure that possible transmission of polio is dealt with nationally and decisively, this has to be done immediately and hence all children within the said age group must be reached,” said Mazonde in a court application against the Bazezuru.

However, defiant church leaders have warned that the government’s strong-arm tactics will earn Botswana “the wrath of God,” in the form of political and natural calamities.

Church elder, Meshack Tsheriwa says God is watching the government of Botswana forcing its members to bend their religious rules and would receive “divine retribution.”

“The government of President Mogae does not differ much from that of the ancient ruler of Egypt, Pharaoh,” he says, adding that the church would stand firm against the immunisation programme.

“We will not tell God to punish the current government, but he knows what action he will take against those who are forcing us despite our explanations. God may bring wars to this relatively peaceful country or something catastrophic that will affect innocent people of this country,” he says.

Tsheriwa accuses Mogae of being intolerant of their religious beliefs and warns that one of the possible punishments by God may be drought. “People think we are being defiant and uncooperative. This is a wrong picture that is being created by the authorities - we are Batswana and law-abiding citizens,” says Tsheriwa.

In Gaborone, another church member and mother of two, Janet Shonga believes the government’s action is unconstitutional. “We have religious rights under the constitution of this country, which give us the freedom to associate ourselves with whichever church we choose. We are not breaking any law by following what our church demands of us. It is a choice that we have made, without being forced, but now the government is punishing us for it,” says Shonga.

She says one of her two children is aged three, and has been subjected to the polio drops forcibly by health officials. “They came here and said there was a new law that made it a crime to resist immunisation. I had no choice but to comply, because if I am arrested and jailed, my children will again suffer the loss of a breadwinner and mother,” says a tearful Shonga.

In all the melee, the children’s voice and their rights have been decisively muffled, and this is likely to remain the case for some time. Bazezuru closely guard their children from outsiders and strangers, in order to keep them in close communion with members of the church only.

A ruling party official, Benjamin Bagayi has rapped human rights organisations for staying mum on the issue, saying it was evident that the Bazezuru were violating their children’s rights.

“The focus has been on the differences between church elders and the government, and little regard has been paid to the fact that these children’s rights to health are clearly being violated,” he says.

African health authorities have set themselves a target of eradicating polio by next year, and the current dispute here is likely to be setback to that objective. Given that Bazezuru are present in three countries, it appears highly possible that the same religious confrontations will erupt in those countries, when the governments decide to embark on immunisation programmes.

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