Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Mugabe's Day of Prayer

President rallies church allies at controversial religious gathering.
President Robert Mugabe is set to score a propaganda coup with his national day of prayer on June 25 that is to feature pro-Mugabe clerics as well as some who previously opposed the head of state and his ruling ZANU PF party.

Mugabe, whose policies have destroyed the economy of what was once one of the most economically successful in Africa, has split his country's non-Catholic churches, pitting pastor against pastor, vicar against vicar, priest against priest.

John Makumbe, a political scientist at the University of Zimbabwe, said, "The day of prayer is a coup for Mugabe. He has split the leadership of Zimbabwe's churches in two, just as he busted the MDC [the opposition Movement for Democratic Change] and split that in two. Mugabe will use anything, including priests, to try to clean himself of his own filth."

The Zimbabwe Council of Churches, affiliated to the Geneva-based World Council of Churches, has been lured into a new alliance with Mugabe, the guest of honour at the national day of prayer at the Harare showgrounds. The initiative for the prayer meeting began a month earlier when 82-year-old Mugabe asked a number of church leaders, mainly from evangelical and other protestant denominations, to meet with him. The result was a new Christian umbrella organisation, the Ecumenical Peace Initiative, supportive of Mugabe and the ruling party.

One of many black Anglican priests and pastors who fled Mugabe's oppressive rule to become refugees in Britain told IWPR, "It is like asking Satan to deliver the sermon on Easter Day."

The angry Anglican priest went on, "First, Christian leaders who support Mugabe went to see him at State House last month and came away singing the dictator's praises.

“Then the same Christian bishops and priests asked Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, to stop calling for international sanctions against leaders of the ZANU PF government. Finally, there is this Day of Prayer on which Mugabe will 'return Zimbabwe to God'."

The priest added, "I beg of you not to use my name because the [East German] Stasi-trained Central Intelligence Organisation, CIO, loyal to Mugabe has promised to arrest my family in Masvingo and throw the lot of them into prison." A younger Zimbabwean exiled priest had talked openly to IWPR before being threatened by a CIO operative working inside the UK.

The truth is that Mugabe, despite the propaganda coup represented by the national day of prayer, is not yet in tune with the majority of Christians in a nation of people who largely adhere to the Christian faith, either as Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists or one of the dozens of Pentecostal churches that are springing up like mushrooms as poverty and uncertainty bite.

The aging Zimbabwean leader's main Christian ally is a man most Anglicans in Zimbabwe say is an embarrassment to their religion, the 56-year old Anglican Bishop of Harare, Nolbert Kunonga.

After being put under pressure from his own followers and by embarrassing publicity, the Archbishop of Canterbury called for the suspension of Bishop Kunonga who in August last year appeared before an ecclesiastical court charged with 38 serious offences, including incitement to murder and racism. But the trial was abandoned on the instructions of the Archbishop of Central Africa, Zambia's Archbishop Bernard Malanga, a known friend of Mugabe.

A statement from Lambeth Palace in London, the Archbishop of Canterbury's administrative headquarters, said, "In the context of a prolonged religious and political crisis, the Diocese of Harare faces intolerable strain in the form of the very grave and unresolved accusations against Bishop Kunonga. The primary way forward is by dealing with the charges through the church courts in the Anglican Province of Central Africa but this process has been aborted and the matter is unresolved."

Several times recently Bishop Nolbert has said that he owes his allegiance to the Archbishop of Central Africa, not to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Mugabe has mocked Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams’s leadership of the Anglican community at a time when it is split from head to toe on the subject of full Christian rights, including the right to be ordained as bishops for gay men and lesbians.

At the end of May this year, ten exiled black Zimbabwean priests met in the northern English town of Chester and, after several prayer sessions, agreed to approach the Church of England's second most important leader, Dr John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, for help in dealing with the Christian crisis in their country.

The priests told IWPR they prefer to deal with Dr Sentamu than Dr Williams because, they said, the former speaks out courageously on social and political matters whereas Dr Williams appears to waver when it comes to important principles.

"Dr Williams cuts no ice with any Anglican of significance in Zimbabwe," one exiled priest told IWPR. "Until recently, I put my name to statements about what's going on in Zimbabwe. I no longer dare do that. Mugabe has CIO operatives in Britain and many of the 400,000 Zimbabweans in exile in the UK know that's true. Our hope is that Dr Sentamu - being an African from Uganda - will have clout in my country. I'm afraid hardly anyone there takes Dr Williams very seriously though he is a good man who has personally listened to and helped Zimbabweans in exile."

One of the Anglican community's most serious complaints about Bishop Kunonga is that he has personally chosen priests who are pro-Mugabe and promoted them and has even ordained two members of Mugabe's government. Kunonga was rewarded by Mugabe with the gift of a large productive farm and its seven-bedroom farmhouse, some 15 kilometres from Harare, confiscated from its white owner, Marcus Hale. The property is now derelict.

Mugabe's most vocal and dangerous religious opponent is the massively courageous Roman Catholic Archbishop of Bulawayo, Pius Ncube. He says Mugabe is an"evil" man, and the Archbishop confesses he prays "that the Good Lord will take Mugabe away from us".

Archbishop Ncube holds Mugabe personally responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of men, women and children at the hands of the Zimbabwe Army's North Korea-trained Fifth Brigade during the "anti-dissident" campaign of the mid-1980s. Ncube also lambasted Mugabe's government for destroying hundreds of thousands of shanty town dwellings in last year's nationwide Operation Murambatsvina (Operation Drive Out the Rubbish) that has left more than 700,000 people homeless.

Ncube said some of the church leaders in the Ecumenical Peace Initiative, in addition to Bishop Kunonga, had been given farms and money by Mugabe to cooperate with the government. "The reason why you see some church leaders singing government praises is because they have already been bought," he said in advance of the day of prayer, which he has refused to attend.

Urging Mugabe to resign, Ncube said the CIO had infiltrated church organisations to monitor sermons. He went on, "Mugabe [born into a Catholic family] is a lip-service Christian. He's a convenience Christian when it suits him. The way he has killed so many people, what kind of Christian is that? The government doesn't like people who speak the truth, and Christ wouldn't have had a chance of survival in Mugabe's Zimbabwe.

"The church should be a refuge and a safe haven for those who have been tortured and abandoned. It is this government that continues to torture and abuse people, and to give impunity to those responsible. This government has no heart for the suffering of its people, and church leadership should be aware that to join in solidarity with those

who have caused such great suffering leaves many victims feeling betrayed. It is not for President Mugabe to recommit this country to God, as is being suggested by some church leadership. God will judge on an individual basis who is and who is not committed to Him; God will judge us all by our actions and not by our words."

The Christian Alliance, a rival organisation to the Zimbabwe Council of Churches, said in a statement, "We would like God and the nation to know that we categorically disassociate ourselves from this apostasy. We totally disagree with the tenor and substance of the sentiments voiced by these leaders [of the Council of Churches]. In what way do they support this government which has shed innocent blood, brutally tortured its citizens and destroyed their homes and livelihoods and promoted racial hatred?

"As an alliance of like-minded Christians, we count ourselves among the faithful followers of Christ who refuse to be bought or frightened, but to stand for truth, justice and righteousness. We therefore feel called by God, who is a just God, to speak prophetically against this government's unjust laws as well as engage in acts of defiant civil disobedience if need be.

"On our part, there can be no partnership with the ZANU PF government until and unless there is genuine repentance and change on its part. What relationship can there be between the light of the Gospel and the darkness it [the government] stands for?"

The president of the Zimbabwe Council of Churches, Anglican Bishop Peter Nempare, told reporters after the May meeting with Mugabe, "We know we have a government that we must support, interact with and draw attention to concerns."

The Standard, an independent weekly newspaper, quoted Bishop Densen Mafinyane, the secretary-general of the Council of Churches, as having told Mugabe inside the meeting, "We love Zimbabwe and support your government efforts."

Ncube commented, "As for Nempare, I am not really surprised by his statements. He supports Mugabe: he is a ZANU PF loyalist. Mafinyane always changes his stance: today he will have a certain opinion, tomorrow that opinion will have changed."

Most of the funds for the day of prayer, including the cost of buses to ferry people from all over the country to the event, have been provided by the government.

Trevor Grundy, a UK-based journalist and author, lived in Zimbawe for 20 years and is a regular commentator on religious affairs in Africa for newspapers and the BBC. He is presently collaborating with the writer Susan Paul on the official biography of the late Sir Garfield Todd, the New Zealand Christian missionary who became Prime Minister of Rhodesia between 1953 and 1958.