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Mugabe Church Donation Raises Eyebrows

Gesture comes as surprise to those who thought he had cut ties with the Catholic Church.
By Jacob Nhlanhla
Amid escalating calls to excommunicate him from the Roman Catholic Church, President Robert Mugabe has donated a large sum of money to it.

After damaging stand-offs between the Zimbabwean ruler and the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishop’s Conference, ZCBC, as well as highly regarded critic Archbishop of Bulawayo Pius Ncube, some analysts see the 300 million Zimbabwe dollar donation (one million US dollars at the official exchange rate and just over one thousand US dollars on the black market), made late last month to a women’s Catholic Church grouping, the Marian Association, as more of an electioneering stunt than a way of making amends with the church.

Mugabe describes himself as a devout Catholic who attends Sunday mass regularly. However, fellow Catholics maintain he should have been excommunicated long ago from the church that raised him, for failing to respect human rights and good governance.

But Father Oskar Wermter, a Jesuit missionary priest who has lived in Zimbabwe for over 30 years, said calls to excommunicate Mugabe were “old hat” and were unlikely to be heard. “This was mooted years ago. It was explained then that this was no longer done today. At any rate, excommunication in a strict legal or canonical sense is a measure applied only in certain circumstances defined by church law,” he said.

Wermter, based in Harare, said that while excommunication had been evoked in the past to deal with political leaders - heads of governments, kings and emperors - who violated human rights abuses, the phenomenon was rare in the 21st century.

“We no longer live in the Middle Ages. The local bishops do not even have that power. It would have to come from the Pope himself,” explained Wermter.

But he added that renewed calls for Mugabe to be excommunicated were indicative of people’s growing desperation to see a resolution to the crisis that has gripped Zimbabwe for the past ten years.

Ecumenical efforts to find solutions to Zimbabwe’s woes under the faith-based Christian Alliance and the Save Zimbabwe Campaign banners - groupings of local Christian denominations and pro-democracy activists - have been snubbed by both Mugabe and his ruling ZANU-PF party.

Early this year, Pope Benedict XVI expressed his support for the ZCBC after it issued its most vocal pastoral letter since the crisis set in, blaming Mugabe for the escalation of human rights abuses and for destroying a once-vibrant economy.

While Catholics here continue to call for Mugabe’s excommunication, the president insists he is just an “ordinary Catholic who goes to Mass every Sunday”.

Mugabe was educated by Jesuit missionaries but made a shift from alter boy to radical nationalist when he joined the nationalist movement in the early 1960s, which he then led in a bitter guerrilla war against Ian Smith, then prime minister of Rhodesia. The war culminated in the country’s independence from Britain in 1980.

Calls for Mugabe’s excommunication from the Catholic Church were first made after the human rights abuses during the “Gukurahundi Era” in the early 1980s were exposed: an estimated 20,000 people were killed under Mugabe’s rule in the Matabeleland uprisings – a travesty which was documented by the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, CCJP.

Almost three decades later and with his fight against his opposition party detractors now encompassing his critics in the Catholic Church, calls for his excommunication have grown louder. Derrick Shorai, an official with the CCJP in Harare, says he, along with many of Zimbabwe’s Catholics, has always supported the idea of having Mugabe excommunicated. “Perhaps it shows our desperation to get rid of him not just as a Catholic but as the country’s president,” said Shorai.

“Mugabe has caused so much untold suffering, but still enjoys access to the sacraments. We just don’t know how he has been able to receive these, despite his known human rights abuses.”

Reacting to the pastoral letter issued by the ZCBC earlier this year, strongly criticising Mugabe’s regime, the 83-year-old leader warned the bishops to stay away from politics or risk being dealt with as opposition political activists.

The veiled threats escalated recently when on July 7, during the burial of an army brigadier at the country’s Heroes Acre burial shrine, Mugabe chastised “priests who steal other men’s wives”. A fortnight later, one of his fiercest critics, Bulawayo Archbishop Pius Ncube, was accused of being an adulterer in the media.

Among the archbishop’s supporters are those who believe the expose was a carefully orchestrated sting operation by Mugabe’s lieutenants to disgrace the archbishop. This has swelled the chorus among some Catholic supporters that he be excommunicated.

A pastor with Christian Alliance who preferred to remain anonymous said, “While the people’s concerns would appear legitimate, you cannot trust a man accused of so much to take this lying down. His relationship with the Catholic Church especially has always been stormy but we have to understand that it is God who will judge him, not us.”

Retired Bulawayo archbishop Henry Kalern was reluctant to talk about the issue, citing the present controversy surrounding his successor.

According to Wermter, Mugabe has “effectively excommunicated himself”, given the sustained human rights abuses meted out by his government. “In a very real way, though not technically as defined by church law, Mugabe has effectively excommunicated himself, that is to say put himself outside the community of the church, by resisting the word of the church and attacking the bishops in a most offensive, vulgar form. At least the constant propaganda line that he is a ‘practising, devout Catholic’ is now shown to be false,” he told IWPR.

But Mugabe, always the wily politician, has begun to make amends. His donation came as a surprise to those who thought he had cut ties with the Catholic Church after his run-ins with the bishops and the Ncube incident.

“There are two reasons he could have [made the donation],” said one local Catholic who refused to be identified. “The Catholic Church has a huge following in Zimbabwe and the elections are coming. He does not wish to lose that vote. Also he might be in his own way telling the Catholics that he still belongs.”

Mugabe handed over the money through his ally in the ruling party and presidential hopeful Oppah Muchinguri. The donation was confirmed by Bishop Patrick Mutume of Harare who said it would be invested on the money market until a decision was made on how it could be best utilised. Muchinguri is at the forefront of the campaign for Mugabe’s nomination as ZANU-PF’s sole candidate in next year’s election. She herself is eyeing the vice-presidency and is fighting tooth-and-nail to have incumbent Joice Mujuru fired.

Jacob Nhlanhla is the pseudonym of an IWPR journalist in Zimbabwe.

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