Rwandan police have arrested six Christian pastors on grounds that they are planning to defy a recent order that closed more than 700 churches that allegedly don't meet safety and cleanliness standards.
AFP reports that authorities in the African country announced Tuesday that they had arrested six "masterminds" plotting to defy the government's shutdown of 714 churches and one mosque that were deemed unsafe, unclean and noisey in the capital city of Kigali.
The government accuses the religious leaders, all Pentecostals, of holding meetings where they discussed resistance of the order, which was issued last week.
"After the suspension of churches that did not meet required standards, some church leaders began illegal meetings intended to defy and obstruct the directive," Rwanda National Police spokesperson Theos Badege told the international news agency. "Police began investigations to find the masterminds behind this illegal act."
Badege added that the shutdown mainly affects Pentecostal churches. The churches have been asked to "halt operations until they meet the requirements."
"Some churches conduct their worship services in shoddy and unclean structures, to the detriment of people's health and safety," Anastase Shyaka, who heads the government board that oversees public and private organizations, told AFP last month. "Cases of noise pollution have also been reported while some operate without the required operation permits."
As BBC notes, the number of Pentecostal churches run by charismatic pastors have increased rapidly in Africa over the last several years. While some are massive and attract thousands every Sunday, other churches are simple structures built without government approval.
A Rwandan official told BBC that some of the churches affected by the order have already reopened after being approved by inspectors.
Some church leaders have criticized the order.
"Those [churches] that failed to implement a few requirements should be reopened and allowed to work while fixing the problems raised," Bishop Innocent Nzeyimana, who is the president of the Churches' Forum in Nyarugenge district of Rwanda, told AFP last month.
Rwandan authorities are also trying to make it more difficult to form and open new churches. A recently proposed law would make it so that a theological degree is required to open a church.
AFP reports that the proposed law is expected to pass this year and would be a response to the fact that some preachers "deceive their congregation with misleading sermons."
A number of preachers oppose the proposal and argue that it is a government attempt to censor their message, AFP reports.
The order against the churches comes as the Rwandan government has been accused of stifling freedom of expression for political opposition groups and civil society organizations.
Last month, the government fined and suspended for one month Christian radio station Amazing Grace FM for airing a sermon from evangelist Nicholas Niyibikora that it deemed discriminatory to women. Additionally, the radio station was ordered to issue an apology and a statement of correction.