Tuesday, June 6, 2006

Zimbabwe: Government interference escalates

Date: Tuesday 6 June 2006
Subj: Zimbabwe: Government interference escalates
To: World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty News & Analysis
From: WEA RLC Principal Researcher and Writer, Elizabeth Kendal.

Over recent years, the Mugabe regime has introduced several measures to silence dissent. Quite apart from open police brutality, measures like the Non-Governmental Organisations Bill 2004 (NGO Bill, see link 1) and the draconian Public Order and Security Act (POSA, which provides the police with wide-ranging powers to control or ban public gatherings of three or more persons) have enabled the Mugabe regime to crush or silence dissent, close doors and obstruct channels of communication and aid. These laws have had a devastating effect upon the Church's ability to deliver humanitarian aid and engage in human rights, justice and freedom issues.

The POSA was recently used to ban a prayer procession organised by a united Christian forum called "Churches in Bulawayo", on the grounds that the police deemed it a security risk. In their statement to the press Churches in Bulawayo expressed serious concern that the police would deny them the right to hold a prayer procession. They regard this as a serious infringement of their freedom to worship.


On 23 May 2005 a wave of demolitions heralded the commencement of Robert Mugabe's "Operation Murambatsvina". It is estimated that some 300,000 homes were demolished by the "Mugabe Tsunami" – a man-made disaster that left some 1.5 million homeless and destitute. Several people including small children were crushed in the dwellings they called "home". Many other victims died from the consequences of poverty combined with homelessness, such as starving or freezing to death. Still others died prematurely from illnesses simply because the medical missions and NGOs that served the poor were likewise not spared (Link 2).

Operation Murambatsvina left Zimbabwe's churches facing what appeared to be an insurmountable volume of human suffering. However, one great blessing did arise from the ashes of Murambatsvina. Christians long divided by difference found unity in their conviction that they must uphold the Biblical mandate to defend the poor and needy, and that they can do it best if they do it together. Operation Murambatsvina gave life and purpose to a powerful movement of practical church unity. Churches in Bulawayo is one such church alliance. According to its 16 May 2006 press release, "Churches in Bulawayo sheltered over 2000 families at the height of Murambatsvina and have continued to provide food assistance as well as medical help and payment of school fees for displaced children."

Churches in Bulawayo organised a prayer procession for 20 May 2006 to commemorate Operation Murambatsvina and pray for its victims. "Sokwanele" Civil Action Support Group reports, "This event was but one of the several organized across the country by the Zimbabwe Christian Alliance, an informal ecumenical alliance seeking a united Christian response to the current crisis. The objective - shared by many civic groups including Crisis in Zimbabwe - was to focus attention on the plight of victims of ZANU PF's purge of the poor, one year on from the nationwide campaign of destruction which saw hundreds of thousands rendered homeless and destitute." (Link 3)

Church leaders in Bulawayo consulted the police about their intention to hold a prayer procession. They did this as a courtesy, not because they were obliged to, as events that have "bona fide religious purposes" are exempt from the POSA. The police initially granted the churches clearance. However, they soon made an about turn and withdrew permission saying the procession would be a security risk. The Churches in Bulawayo press release explains, "What has frightened the police is that thousands of Bulawayo residents are intending to take part in the procession."

After withdrawing permission for the prayer procession, police then moved to intimidate the pastors into submission. The Churches in Bulawayo press release explains: "Since yesterday [Monday 15 May] junior police officers have been calling individual clerics to interrogate and intimidate them to cancel the procession. But this morning, Tuesday, about 30 senior security officers in Bulawayo who are members of the Joint Operations Command – that is composed of police, army and Central Intelligence Organisation – summoned the leadership of Churches in Bulawayo to a two-hour interrogation session."

The Bulawayo pastors however, being consumed with conviction that they must obey the Biblical mandate – "Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy" (Proverbs 31:9) – were not easily intimidated. Instead, they challenged the police ban in the Bulawayo High Court. Lawyers for the Zimbabwe Christian Alliance argued that the police ban was an "infringement of our freedom to worship" and it demonstrated "the desperate position of this regime". Late in the evening of Friday 19 May, the High Court ruled in favour of the pastors, saying that the churches had the legal right to hold a prayer procession. (Link 4)

Sokwanele's report is entitled, "More steel in the men of God: Despite police threats the Church goes ahead with Commemoration," and it explains what happened next. "The organizers of most of the other commemorative events planned for this weekend [20-21 May] eventually succumbed to police pressure to call them off. Not so the pastors who lead Churches in Bulawayo." (Link 3)


On Saturday 20 May 06, in defiance of Mugabe's police, Churches in Bulawayo led some 300 very courageous believers in a prayer procession. Everyone who participated did so with the knowledge that, in the words of Rev. Promise Mnceda, ". . .the likelihood of arrests and beatings is very high." (Reuters 19 May)

The prayer procession commenced at St Patrick's Church in Makokoba, Bulawayo's oldest township. From there the band of believers walked into the city singing "Nkosi Sikeleli Africa" (a famous African anthem) and hymns and choruses. Sokwanele reports that the singing attracted "the friendly attention of passers-by". Police and CIO officers lined the route, but the day passed without incident. When the procession reached its destination at the Brethren in Christ Church in the city, those taking part settled down outside to listen to speeches, songs and a poem written especially for the event. Messages of solidarity were read from supporters such as Zimbabwean Archbishop Pius Ncube (unable to attend) and British-based TEAR Fund. (Link 5)

Sokwanele concludes: "For many of the unfortunate victims of Operation Murambatsvina and hundreds of internally displaced persons the Church has become their only refuge and security in a turbulent time of deep crisis. They are grateful, and we as a nation should be profoundly grateful that the Church is there for them. That the Church is taking up its divine mandate, not only to care for the victims of the most gross human rights abuses but also to challenge and confront the arrogant tyranny responsible, is a cause for general rejoicing."

Rejoice – yes! But don't forget, these church leaders are facing perilous times. By the time the next church event rolls around the Bulawayo High Court will doubtless have a new judge (see Institute for War and Peace Reporting: "Mugabe Moulds Pliant Judiciary", link 6).


But the suffering of Zimbabwe has not produced a turning point for the churches so much as it has produced a watershed, and not all church leaders are falling down the same side of the mountain. Churches in Zimbabwe are splitting and polarising over the issue of how to respond to the Mugabe regime. Groups like the Churches of Bulawayo and the Zimbabwe Christian Alliance advocate solidarity for the purpose of upholding the Biblical mandate of Proverbs 31:9. Others however believe that preaching salvation without engagement in political issues must be the sole focus of the church.

Others still are discovering that allegiance to Mugabe can be very profitable, both in terms of promotion and material reward. Church leaders driven by greed, power-lust and pride rather than a heart for God's kingdom and glory – and such leaders are found in every nation – enjoy symbiotic relationships with the Mugabe regime. This enables Mugabe to interfere directly in church affairs and persecute "troublesome" clerics via proxies: bishops who have exchanged the Biblical mandate for a dictator's rewards.

Most notable is the case of the Anglican Bishop of Harare, Nolbert Kunonga, who not only accepted the gift of St Marnock's Farm in Nyabiri (someone else's land) as a token of personal gratitude from Robert Mugabe, but he also used Zanu PF militia to evict the 40 families of farm workers living in the farm village. Further more it has been alleged that Kunonga used his influence with the ruling party to secure the post of bishop of Harare.

In August 2005 Kunonga appeared before the Provincial Court of the Anglican Church of Central Africa (an ecclesiastical court) to face 38 charges, including incitement to murder, intimidating critics, preaching racial hatred, and mishandling church funds. In December 2005 the court hearing collapsed without explanation and all charges were dropped. Many suspect Zanu PF interference.

Twelve priests have left the parish since Kunonga became bishop, ten of whom live in exile, claiming to have fled persecution. According to the Reverend Paul Gwese who fled Zimbabwe last September, ". . Reverend Nolbert Kunonga, . . .has terrorised Christians, and . . is turning his diocese into a religious branch of Mugabe's ruling ZANU PF party." The exiled clerics recently observed a day of prayer and then unanimously agreed to approach Ugandan-born John Sentamu, Britain's first black archbishop, for help. (Link 7)

Elizabeth Kendal


1) Zimbabwe: The NGO Bill and the Church. 20 January 2005

2) Zimbabwe: urban renewal or social engineering?
-- Operation Murambasvina, 4 July 2005

3) More steel in the men of God: Despite police threats the Church goes ahead with Commemoration. Saturday, 20 May 2006

4) Churches in court fight for 'prayer marches'
By Jane Fields, Harare, 19 May 2006
Bulawayo high court upholds churches' legal right to march
By Tererai Karimakwend,. 20 May 2006 http://www.swradioafrica.com/news190506/churchmarch200506.htm

5) Bulawayo churches defy Zimbabwe protest ban. 22 May 2006
'We Remember': A Poem written In Honor of the Victims of Murambatsvina. By Dumisani O. Nkomo http://www.sokwanele.com/thisiszimbabwe/?cat=37

6) Mugabe Moulds Pliant Judiciary.
By Hativagone Mushonga in Harare, 31 May 2006

7) Shameful silence on Nolbert Kunonga, Anglican Bishop of Harare
5 January 2006 http://www.sokwanele.com/thisiszimbabwe/archives/334
Zimbabwean clerics to seek help from Archbishop of York. 27 May 2006 http://www.zimbabwejournalists.com/story.php?art_id=465&cat=2