Rwandan authorities have arrested six pastors who were allegedly the "masterminds" of a plot to defy a recent government order that shut down more than 700 churches that have supposedly failed to meet safety and sanitation standards.
The pastors were accused of organizing meetings in which they discussed resisting the government order to close 714 churches and one mosque in the capital Kigali.
Among the arrested clergymen was Bishop Rugagi Innocent, who allegedly described the decision to shut down the churches as "abrupt."
Rwanda National Police spokesperson Theos Badege claimed that the six pastors were plotting to mobilize other clergymen to oppose the church closure order issued by Kigali city authorities and the Rwanda Governance Board (RGB).
He told reporters on Tuesday that the pastors "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. Police began investigations to find the masterminds behind this illegal act," Badege said, according to BBC.
The other arrested clergymen were Apostle Charles Rwandamura, Fred Nyamurangwa, James Dura, Emmanuel Shyaka Kalisa and Rev. Emmanuel Ntambara. Badege said that the six pastors will be arraigned in court, but declined to say when.
The government order has mainly affected Pentecostal churches, which have grown rapidly in many parts of Africa in recent years.
According to a government official, some of the churches that were shut down have already reopened after they were approved by inspectors.
Last week, Rwandan President Paul Kagame said that he was surprised by the large number of churches and questioned whether the places of worship "bring any worthy benefit to the people."
"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!" the president exclaimed.
Rwanda is reportedly preparing a new law that will likely make it harder to open new churches. The BBC noted that the proposed new law would require all preachers to obtain theological training before opening a new church.
The government stated that the reason for the new law is that some preachers "deceive their congregation with misleading sermons," but some preachers have alleged that the authorities are trying to control the message they send to their congregations, in a country that has often been criticized of stifling free speech.
In February, a Christian radio station was suspended after it aired a "hateful" live sermon against women.