Evangelical Christians in Zimbabwe have declared that they are not willing to engage in interfaith dialogue with Muslims, Hindus and followers of traditional African religions.Their refusal presents a major obstacle to the Zimbabwe National Forum for Inter-Faith Dialogue (ZNFIFD) even before it begins its work. ZNFIFD will be officially launched in June to promote the peaceful coexistence of all religions in the country."We don't believe in inter-faith dialogue," Useni Sibanda, communications coordinator of the Evangelical Fellowship of Zimbabwe (EFZ), told Ecumenical News International (ENI). "We believe the only way to God is through Jesus. Any other religion which does not subscribe to our thinking, we view it as a cult."Zimbabwe's evangelical churches have between 3 million and 3.6 million members. Leaders of these churches strongly oppose the blending of Christianity and traditional African religion.(According to the SBS World Guide, published in Australia, approximately 50 percent of Zimbabwe's population of 10 million people follow mixed Christian and traditional beliefs, 25 percent profess Christianity alone, and 24 percent follow indigenous beliefs. Zimbabwe also has a relatively small Muslim community.)Sibanda also said that the EFZ would also have a "serious" problem sharing a platform with African traditionalists who believed that ancestral spirits were a way to God.A leading supporter of African traditional religion, Professor Gordon Chavhunduka, who is former vice-chancellor at the University of Zimbabwe and leader of the Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers Association, told ENI: "I personally don't think that traditionalists have anything to gain from the forum. We are almost living harmoniously with other religions already. I am still not convinced that the forum has an important role to play."But Tendai Chikuku, rector of the Ecumenical Documentation and Information Center for Eastern and Southern Africa and co-founder of ZNFIFD, is convinced the forum is an important platform for all religions in the country. She told ENI that the forum would facilitate constructive dialogue among the various religions.Chikuku said that while there was no immediate threat of religion-based violence here, Zimbabweans had to learn from the experiences of other countries. "The forum is basically a platform where the different religions can come together and explore ways of peaceful coexistence, with the objective of fostering better understanding between religions," she told ENI. "It is not a platform to convert each other. We strongly believe that each religion has its place in society."Zimbabwe is generally seen as a tolerant and peaceful multi-faith society. The few religious conflicts that exist mainly take place within denominational or religious organizations, and most of them are disputes about leadership positions.Another co-founder of the forum, Levee Kadenge of the Methodist Church, told ENI that Zimbabwe had so far proved to be a community tolerant of other religions. But he added: "That may not last for ever if we do not work towards improving the tolerance which is already there."Kadenge said that an attempt by some Christians last year to have Zimbabwe declared a Christian nation, as part of a process of reforming the nation's constitution, was "a sign of the highest order of intolerance. That should not be entertained where there are other faiths."Oskar Wermter, spokesperson of the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops' Conference, said the Catholic Church was not part of the new forum, but was already involved in work promoting the peaceful coexistence of the different religions."We [Catholics] are actually in the process of exploring to what extent we can integrate the positive elements of traditional religion into Christianity," said Wermter.Another co-founder of the forum, Dr Paul Gundani of the University of Zimbabwe's department of religious studies, said the forum was an important initiative that could be used to bury mistrust.Sheikh Umar Phiri, who represents the Muslim community on the forum, said: "The forum will work towards finding common ground upon which religious entities in Zimbabwe can work together for the betterment of the entire nation."No comment was available from Zimbabwe's Hindu and Jewish communities, which have also been invited to join the forum.Copyright © 2000 Ecumenical News International. Used with permission.

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Our earlier coverage of Christianity in Zimbabwe includes:Church Council Urges Swift Resolution of Zimbabwe's Row over White Farms | Land redistribution must be done "in a systematic, just and transparent manner" (Mar. 23, 2000) Zimbabwe's Black Anglican Priests Claim Exclusion at White Ceremonies | Four priests resign, alleging widespread racism (Nov. 24, 1999) Gun-Toting Missionaries Given Light Sentences (Nov. 15, 1999) Missionaries or Mercenaries? (May 24, 1999)