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Zimbabwean Clerics to Seek Help from Archbishop of York

Anglican priests say their bishop is crushing dissenting voices to serve President Robert Mugabe’s government.
By Trevor Grundy
A group of Zimbabwean priests are planning to ask the Anglican Archbishop of York to mediate between warring factions in a religious drama being played out around Zimbabwe's main Anglican cathedral, St Mary's and All Saints, in the capital Harare.



The ten priests, who have all in self-imposed exile after fleeing persecution by the regime of President Robert Mugabe, met recently in the English city of Chester to discuss the bizarre situation that has developed in the diocese of St Mary's and All Saints in the Zimbabwean capital Harare.



After a day of prayer, the clerics unanimously agreed that Ugandan-born John Sentamu, Britain's first black archbishop, was the right man to help them solve a problem that has brought normal church life in Harare to a halt, and left many Anglicans there confused and concerned.



"We all respect Archbishop John,” the Reverend Paul Gwese, who fled Zimbabwe last September, told IWPR from his new home in Bradford. “I intend asking him to help solve a difficult problem – how to deal with the Bishop of Harare, the Right Reverend Nolbert Kunonga, who since his controversial ordination in 2001 has terrorised Christians, and who is turning his diocese into a religious branch of Mugabe's ruling ZANU PF party."



Father Gwese, 33, knows a thing or two about religious intimidation. He was the parish priest of the Church of St Francis of Assisi in the Harare suburb of Glen Norah until Bishop Kunonga, 56, suspended him 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.



Father Gwese was transferred to a rural parish 110 kilometres 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.



Bishop Kunonga refused to listen to them, and Father Gwese remained where he was.



The bishop, who likes to mock black critics of Mugabe as "puppets of the West" and has described his repeated election victories as “God’s will”, was rewarded for this and other acts of loyalty by the gift of a farm and seven-bedroom farmhouse, about 15 kilometres from Harare, confiscated from its white owner, Marcus Hale.



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



Father Gwese has in the past been wary of speaking out against Kunonga. Like many of the other 400,000 Zimbabwean exiles in Britain, he worries that agents of Mugabe's feared Central Intelligence Organisation could intimidate, arrest and even torture relatives and friends back home.



"Bishop Kunonga feels free to do what he likes because he is a strong supporter of President Mugabe and ZANU PF," he said. "Who doesn't know that he has friends in high places?



"But does he have the clergy and people behind him? No. People want spiritual leaders who are accountable, but when you look at the way things are being done in Harare diocese, church politics is no different from secular politics. Corrupt and unaccountable leaders see themselves above the law."



Gwesi said, "I am depressed to see what was once a reputable church deteriorate into a circus."



In past years, prominent Anglican leaders in Britain such as Canon John Collins, the Reverend Michael Scott and Father Trevor Huddleston were outspoken about the evils of apartheid in South Africa. But the church's current leader, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has been silent on the crisis in Zimbabwe.



An attempt by Anglicans in Africa to hold Bishop Kunonga to account proved unsuccessful. In August last year, Bishop Kunonga faced 38 charges under canon law before an ecclesiastical court. The allegations, made before the Provincial Court of the Anglican Church of Central Africa, included incitement to murder, "sinning against the church, its officials and its flock", and preaching "racial hatred".



After the charges were whittled down to a list of 11, Bishop Kunonga denied them all.



The day after the trial began, there was pandemonium at the trial venue, Harare's Royal Golf Club, when the presiding judge from James Kalaile from Malawi, threw out all the charges before Kunonga had even lodged a plea. Kalaile said he was withdrawing from the case and would ask the Archbishop of Central Africa, Zambia's Bernard Malango, to appoint another judge.



Sporting a jewelled cross over his cassock, Bishop Kunonga, a short, thickset man, emerged triumphant from the courtroom, according to eyewitnesses, and saying he would only speak to state-owned media.



In a terse statement published in Zimbabwe's state-owned Herald newspaper, Archbishop Malango, a friend of Kunonga and admirer of President Mugabe, said, "The matter is closed and cannot be revived."



But in March this year, Bob Stumbles, a Harare lawyer who is the lay deputy chancellor of the Anglican Church's Central African Province and also a worshipper at St Mary's Cathedral, said that Archbishop Malango's unilateral dismissal of the case violated "the laws of evidence, the laws of the church and natural justice".



Stumbles said the archbishop had no right "to abolish an ecclesiastical court which he himself has convened and which has already commenced proceedings". He called for the court to be reconvened immediately with a new judge.



Father Gwese said Christians in Harare fear that Kunonga is being allowed to ignore church laws because of his support for Mugabe.



Godfrey Tawonezvi, the Anglican Archbishop of the southern diocese of Masvingo, recently published a letter in The Zimbabwean, a newspaper printed in the UK for exiles, in which he claimed Kunonga was pressuring other Anglican dioceses in Zimbabwe.



Bishop Tawonezvi also alleged that Bishop Kunonga had carried out illegal ordinations to bolster his hold on the church. "The bishop simply hand-picked his friends and ordained them, disregarding human, spiritual and pastoral formation," he said.



In a recent interview with the Herald newspaper, Kunonga portrayed himself as a kind of Zimbabwean Martin Luther.



Unrepentant about the Mugabe government's seizure of white-owned farms, he went on to say that "throughout history, the Anglican Church has been an extension of British colonialism and imperialism".



He indicated that these days things were different, and that although the Zimbabwean church remained in communion with the Church of England, it was neither "inferior or answerable" to the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Anglican Church.



"So England has no jurisdiction over me," he concluded.



He likened this independent stance to the Reformation in Europe, when the Protestant Martin Luther put German interests first, "Germany was saying Germany for the Germans and Henry the Eighth was also saying England should be ruled by the English - and it applies to our situation, too, that no aliens should rule."



Father Gwese and his colleagues in exile believe that the Bishop of Harare might yet meet his match in Archbishop Sentamu, the second highest cleric in the worldwide Anglican communion.



The Archbishop of York is not shy of stepping on political toes. In Uganda, he was in dispute with military dictator Idi Amin, whose murder of Janani Luwum, the archbishop of Uganda and a close friend, cemented Sentamu's own determination to become a priest.



"Perhaps Bishop Kunonga will call the Archbishop of York a puppet of the white man," laughed Father Gwese. "I don't think that would cut much ice anywhere. We hope to get John Sentamu on our side because he talks about big issues, real things affecting the welfare of the church.



"We are Zimbabwean Christians and we want the worldwide Anglican community to know that we want justice, transparency and good leadership in our Anglican community. I pray that the Archbishop of York will help us."



Trevor Grundy is a UK-based journalist and author who lived in Zimbabwe for 20 years. He is a regular commentator on religious affairs in Africa for the Church Times, Catholic Herald, the Jewish Chronicle and the BBC.