A commission set up to investigate the commercialisation of religion in South Africa has found that many of the country’s churches are selling religion to desperate and vulnerable people and says the majority of churches do not abide by the country’s laws.

The commission has recommended that all religious institutions be registered and affiliated to some regulatory body to be established immediately.

The study was conducted after the mushrooming of many unregistered churches which were seen to encourage people to practise extreme and unethical acts. Their followers were encouraged to drink petrol and eat snakes, rats and even grass, among other practices, prompting calls for the regulation of the religious sector.

The Chairperson of the South African Commission for the Protection of Cultural and Religious Rights, Thoko-Mkhwanazi-Xaluva, has detailed some of the commission’s findings.

The registrations of institutions, even those that are registered, are non-compliant. There is about 70 per cent non-compliance and a lack of proper governance structures, the issue of bank accounts, the issue of annual financial reports, illegal and unethical advertising of services offered by some traditional healers and religious leaders, Mkhwanazi-Xaluva said Tuesday.

The commission has proposed the immediate establishment of a body to regulate the sector. It also calls on the Department of Home Affairs (Interior) to re-look the granting of visas to controversial foreign religious leaders. The Commission also wants religious leaders to be screened for previous sexual offences against women and children.

The Children’s Act is very clear, if you are going to work with children you must be checked as far as the child protection register is concerned and in this sector that hasn’t happened. We all know that if you are a religious leader you’ve got access to children.

However, there are questions and confusion among Christian leaders around the introduction of a regulator. Reacting to the commission’s recommendations, Bishop Bafana Zondo from Rivers of Living Waters Ministries said: You have those people who committed serious crimes then they get converted, now how do you regulate that? You cannot preach, you cannot counsel you cannot motivate, you cannot mix with the people because you have a bad previous record. Now if a politician had the same record is he allowed to come to the church and talk to the people?

Father Victor Phalana, speaking for the Catholic Church, added: We learnt that we were becoming a laughing stock of the world. People were asking us questions to defend and even to justify some of the things that were being done in the name of Christianity and it has been embarrassing.

Apostle Collins Dhlomo from the Covenant Fellowship Church in KwaZulu-Natal Province asked: There are questions like extreme religious views. Who determines it is extreme because extreme to you might not be extreme to me?

The religious leaders have been given three weeks to consult with their members and report back to the commission before the report is tabled in parliament.