The Tanzanian government has threatened to ban all religious institutions and NGOs whose leaders are found "meddling in politics."
"From April 20, the government will conduct a thorough vetting to know the religious institutions and NGOs [that are] meddling in politics," Home Affairs Minister Mathias Chikawe told The Anadolu Agency.
Tanzanian Christian and Muslim leaders have declared their intention to campaign for a "No" vote in an upcoming constitutional referendum.
In a strongly-worded statement issued in March, the heads of Tanzania's three main Christian churches attributed their collective position to the fact that the proposed constitution had been drafted in a way, which, they said, had lacked integrity.
Many Muslim leaders, for their part, have advised the faithful to vote against the draft charter unless the government introduces amendments to allow the use of Islamic courts for Muslims.
"Such announcements sound like religious leaders are engaging themselves in politics instead of preaching God's will to their followers," said Chikawe.
"It is a clear violation of the country's laws when religious leaders… order their followers not to vote for the proposed constitution or say how they should vote in a general election," he insisted.
"Religious leaders have a constitutional right to participate in politics as individuals," said the minister.
"But they should not use their spiritual leadership to convince followers to follow their wishes," he added.
The Tanzanian government had originally set April 30 for the referendum. The exercise, however, has since been postponed until further notice to allow the government to update voter registration lists.
The new constitution will come into effect if it is approved by more than half of the voters.
The country's main opposition parties have also called for rejecting the draft charter.
Opposition parties had boycotted the constituent assembly, which had endorsed the draft, accusing its chairman of pushing the debate in favor of the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party.
Leonard Mtaita, secretary-general of the Christian Council of Tanzania (CCT), said religious leaders would continue to stand for the truth – and all matters pertaining to the faithful and the national interest – without fear from government.
"Our institutions are there legally," he told AA.
"If the government thinks it's time to tie up religious institutions from fulfilling their spiritual and constitutional right to speak for common citizens, it should first amend the current laws allowing us to do what we have been doing," insisted Mtaita.
For his part, Sheikh Khamisi Mataka, secretary-general of the Muslim Clerics Association, said the government's threats were a sign of weakness.
"A sign of a failed state or government is when it threatens civil society and all those who raise their voices to alert the public about government wrongdoing," he told AA.
The Legal and Human Rights Center (LHRC), a local rights advocacy group, said the threat to ban religious institutions and NGOs reflected government fears regarding its ability to influence public opinion.
"The government knows how powerful religious groups and NGOs are when it comes to convincing the public," LHRC Director-General Helen Kijo-Bisimba told AA.
"Instead of doing better for public interests, the government is now resorting to threats," she fumed.