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Church Leaders Urged to Get Real

African Christians ask their leaders to concentrate on political, social and health issues, not just on gays and lesbians.
By Trevor Grundy
Anglican Christians in parts of Africa are calling on their leaders attending the 2007 Primates Meeting in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania this week, to concentrate on real issues and not spend so much time debating the rights of gay men and lesbian women.



Those who criticise the amounts of time and energy spent debating gay issues say there should be a focus on the catastrophic spread of HIV/AIDS, widespread and pervasive poverty, severe drought, lack of governmental transparency and how the church can use its moral influence to remove despots from power.



In London, a rising star in the Anglican Communion, the Bishop of Botswana, the Right Reverend Musonda Trevor Selwyn Mwamba, told IWPR that Anglicans in Africa are growing tired of the gay debate, the endless arguments about who goes to bed with whom and what colour pyjamas they wear.



Even prominent African Anglicans sympathetic to gays, such as the increasingly popular Archbishop of Cape Town, Mjongonkuku, and his predecessor, Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu, are urging church leaders gathered in Dar es Salaam for six days, ending February 19, to concentrate on poverty, HIV/AIDS, climate change and political oppression rather than gay issues that threaten to split the worldwide Anglican community of 75 million people.



But one real issue the prelates will find impossible to sidestep is the leader of the Anglican community in Zimbabwe, the Bishop of Harare, Nolbert Kunonga, who has been accused by his own priests of terrorising Christians and turning his diocese into a branch of President Robert Mugabe's ruling ZANU PF party.



Zimbabwean Anglicans want the archbishops and bishops gathered in Dar es Salaam to act against Kunonga, a ruling party loyalist in his late 50s, who they say is a disgrace to Christianity and to Africa. Anglican priests critical of Mugabe have been transferred to tough rural parishes and many have resigned. A plethora of legal cases between Kunonga and his disillusioned flock are stuck in Zimbabwe 's chaotic court system. In place of priests who have resigned, he has appointed men who have pledged not to criticise the head of state. He even licensed the acting vice president of Zimbabwe, Joseph Msika, a man on record as saying that whites are not human beings, to act as a deacon of the church.



From the time of his disputed election as Bishop of Harare in 2001 to the present Kunonga has, say Anglicans in Harare, made no secret of his personal ambitions for fame and fortune or his willingness to exploit fully his sycophantic relationship to Mugabe and ZANU PF.



His election in 2001 to the bishopric was shrouded in mystery, resulting in the defeat of a popular priest, and marred by widespread allegations that Kunonga had used his influence with the ruling party to secure the post. He is the only clergyman among many powerful individual Zimbabweans against whom heavy sanctions have been imposed by the European Union and the United States.



Kunonga has used his pulpit at St Mary's Cathedral in Harare to support Mugabe's controversial land reform programme, in which thousands of commercial farms have been confiscated from mainly white owners but also from some black farmers. During one of Kunonga's pro-Mugabe sermons, the choir began singing hymns to drown out his words. The choir was subsequently sacked by the bishop along with the cathedral wardens and cathedral council.



He was rewarded by Mugabe with St Marnock's, 2000 acres of prime farmland 15 kilometres outside Harare , confiscated from its previous white owner, 25-year-old Marcus Hale. The bishop installed his son in the seven-bedroom farmhouse, which overlooked a lake and sweeping fields of wheat and soya: the lake remains, but the house is now derelict and the crops have been replaced by weeds. The bishop, a short, thickset man who wears a jewelled cross over his cassock, also evicted 50 black workers and their families from the property.



Bishop Nolbert has lost few opportunities to sing the praises of Mugabe, who turns 83 on February 21. On that day Zimbabwe will, as it does every February 21, be ordered to come to a halt as "the great and wise authentic ruler" of the past 27 years requires the nation to pay homage to him.



Last year, Kunonga aped his political patron by ordering all 45 Anglican churches in the Harare Diocese - including St Mary’s Cathedral - to close on Sunday in honour of his 33rd wedding anniversary. Instead, he called all Anglicans to a fundraising prayer meeting at a sports arena. Each parish in attendance was asked to donate the equivalent of 2000 US dollars and each individual 20 dollars as a present for the bishop and his wife, Agatha. The 5000-seat arena was less than half full. Nineteen church wardens and choristers were subsequently banned by a Harare court from attending services in St Mary's Cathedral after Kunonga laid charges against them of trying to disrupt his wedding anniversary.



In August 2005 the bishop, who likes to mock black critics of Mugabe as "puppets of the West", and has described Mugabe's repeated election victories as “God’s will”, appeared before an ecclesiastical court to face 38 charges arising from scores of complaints, all but three of which were registered by black parishioners. The charges included incitement to murder, intimidating critics, ignoring church law, mishandling church funds, bringing militant ZANU PF politics into the pulpit and preaching racial hatred.



In December 2005, the court hearing before a Malawian judge collapsed in disarray without proper explanation and the head of the Anglican province of Central Africa, Zambian Archbishop Bernard Malango, informed church leaders in the province that the case against Kunonga had been dropped for ever.



Archbishop Malango is a friend and an admirer of both Mugabe and Kunonga. He was a guest of honour at the Harare bishop's 33rd wedding anniversary celebrations.



Kunonga recently hit back at his critics, in Zimbabwe 's government-owned Herald newspaper, by lambasting white parishioners for their alleged racism and support for commercial farmers who were removed from their farms after 2000 in Mugabe's contentious land reform programme. The bishop likened his “stand” against his own white parishioners to Martin Luther’s against the Pope in 1517.



He made no apology for chasing twelve respected black priests out of their parishes and replacing them with ruling party stooges. Ten of the black priests sought political asylum in Britain .



He went on to remind the rest of the worldwide Anglican Communion that it is only a fellowship and that he could pull out of it just as President Mugabe pulled out of the Commonwealth.



The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Bulawayo , Pius Ncube, Zimbabwe 's most outspoken critic of Mugabe, said Kunonga had aligned himself with the "forces of evil".



Last year, black Zimbabwean Anglican priests exiled in Britain called on the Ugandan-born Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, to intervene in the dispute between Kunonga and his many critics.



The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, the symbolic head of the worldwide Anglican Communion, stepped into the dispute before the Dar es Salaam summit and said the bishop should be suspended until allegations against him have been properly dealt with.



A senior source in the Anglican Communion told IWPR that Dr Williams would almost certainly be talking to Archbishop Malango about why he declared the Kunonga case closed and sealed for ever.



Lambeth Palace, the Archbishop of Canterbury's administrative headquarters and home in London, continued to put the pressure on Kunonga and Malango before Dr Williams flew to Dar es Salaam . “In the context of a prolonged and political crisis, the Anglican Diocese of Harare faces intolerable strain in the form of the very grave and unresolved accusations against Bishop Kunonga,” said a statement from the Archbishop of Canterbury’s London office.



"In other jurisdictions, a priest or bishop facing such serious charges would be suspended without prejudice until the case has been closed. It is therefore very difficult for Bishop Kunonga to be regarded as capable of functioning as a bishop elsewhere in the communion,” it continued.



The Reverend Paul Gwese today lives in self-imposed exile in England. He is the former rector of St Francis of Assisi, an Anglican church in the Harare suburb of Glen Norah, a poor black working class community.



He told IWPR, “Since his controversial ordination in 2001, Bishop Kunonga has terrorised Christians and is turning his dioceses into a religious branch of Mugabe’s ruling party. People want spiritual leaders who are accountable but when you look at the way things are done in Harare Diocese, church politics is no different from secular politics. I am depressed to see what was once a reputable church deteriorate into a circus."



Father Gwese, 34, was suspended by Kunonga for allowing the local member of parliament to make a donation worth about 300 US dollars to parish funds. The problem was that the politician, Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga, belongs to the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, not to ZANU PF.



Father Gwese was transferred to a rural parish 110 km away, while his congregation boycotted services at their church and staged demonstrations outside the Harare cathedral to demand that their vicar be returned to them. Kunonga refused to listen to them and Father Gwese fled into exile.



With many other contentious issues to tackle that could split the worldwide Anglican church, the bishops in Dar es Salaam may not be able to solve the Kunonga problem. But once the ageing Mugabe steps down, Kunonga's reign will end also, for he only retains his post as Zimbabwe 's most powerful Anglican with the president's patronage.



Trevor Grundy is an author, broadcaster and journalist specialising in religious affairs and Zimbabwean issues, who lived and worked in Zimbabwe and other central African countries from 1966 to 1996.



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