A prominent Catholic priest, Oskar Wermter, has called for an "uprising of the conscience" to end the lawlessness troubling Zimbabwe.

Warning that Zimbabwe could drift towards a bloody civil war, Father Wermter called for a fundamental change of heart as violence erupts in many parts of the country.

The priest blamed the violence on the continued glorification of the heroes of Zimbabwe's liberation war in the 1970s. Many war veterans have, with the tacit approval of the government, been taking over white-owned farms, and, in some cases, murdering the owners. Violence has also been directed at the mainly black opposition movement, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

War veterans are also playing a leading role in campaigning against whites and against opponents of the government.

Father Wermter, a white priest and frequent critic of President Robert Mugabe's government, is the communications secretary of the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops' Conference (ZCBC).

In an article he wrote for a Harare newspaper, The Daily News, Wermter said that respect for human life should overrule everything else. His criticisms follow the murder of Peter Mataruse, a member of the MDC in Muzarabani, 250 miles north of Harare, on March 24.

Robson Tinarwo, another supporter of the opposition party, drowned in Musengezi River on the same day while fleeing government supporters and war veterans in the same area.

In February, Gloria Olds, a 72-year-old white farmer in Nyamandlovu, about 320 miles south of Harare, was shot dead at her farm.

More than 30 people, mainly MDC supporters and white farmers, were killed in political violence during the run-up to parliamentary elections last June.

The ruling Zanu PF party and veterans of Zimbabwe's liberation war have been blamed for the campaign of terror that began before the election.

Many here fear that violence could escalate in the lead-up to presidential elections next year. Robert Mugabe has already set the tone by declaring that the MDC—the major threat to his 21-year rule—will "never, never" rule in Zimbabwe.

Wermter said in his article: "As long as a party wants to retain or gain power at any cost, human lives will be sacrificed on the altar of ruthless ambition for power. Democrats know the risks of political life: it's a game where one day you win, another day you lose.

"But those ambitious for power 'at any cost' do not accept the risk of losing. For them it is not a game, it is deadly earnest.

"Respect for human life must overrule everything else. No political objective justifies that even one innocent human life be sacrificed, let alone 35 lives."

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Father Wermter said the glorification of violence, which began during Zimbabwe's liberation struggle, should now come to an end. "Leaders ask their people for immense sacrifices in times of war while giving them the hope of a lasting and prosperous peace afterwards. So what is the use of a war that never ends? Who can endure it? We must put an end to this war and its killings once and for all.

"Spilling blood has been glorified on our heroes' acre for the last 20 years as something glorious. Heroes spill other people's blood and sometimes even their own. Nowadays it is only other people's blood that is being spilled."

"Heroes' acre" is a burial place in Harare set aside by the government soon after independence in 1980 for fighters killed in the war of liberation and for those who died after independence.

However, the selection of the heroes—a prerogative of Zanu PF—has been heavily criticised by opposition parties and civic groups as partisan and for ignoring deserving candidates outside politics.

Father Wermter asked: "Are [liberation war fighters] the only heroes we respect? That would be unfortunate. We need to remember also heroes of a very different kind: people who stayed on in the war zones unarmed and defenceless because, as doctors and nurses, they would not leave their patients uncared for, or, as pastors, would not leave their flocks untended.

"Is it not time that we started honoring the heroes of non-violence so as to un-learn violence?"

Warning that violence could escalate, Wermter said: "There are people in all parties who are fully aware of the danger of civil war in Zimbabwe and are frightened by the prospect.

"Are they also aware of the terrible responsibility that rests on their shoulders to warn their leaders and party colleagues against this mortal danger? Will they allow their conscience to speak and be able to act according to its verdict?

Wermter said "blindness" by a few could lead to catastrophic consequences. A far-sighted and courageous person could make all the difference, he said. "We need an uprising of the conscience. We need a revolution, not of the gun, but of throwing the guns away. We need heroes that listen to and act on the voice of their conscience, that risk their lives, not to kill, but to save."

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Related Elsewhere

Oskar Wermter's Daily News article doesn't seem to be available online, but another of his articles, from Harare's Financial Gazette, is. The article, "Church Must Never Ignore Political Violence," appeared in the January 18 edition of the newspaper.

Christianity Today's earlier coverage of Zimbabwe includes:

War Veterans Occupy Church on Zimbabwean White-Owned Farm | "We just want to pray and leave politics alone," says evicted pastor. (Apr. 2, 2001)

Priest Horrified as Zimbabwe Politician Compared With 'Son of Man' | Incident is not the first such comparison in Zimbabwe politics. (Apr. 2, 2001)

Evangelicals Attempt to Defuse Crises | While decrying land redistribution program, president of Evangelical Fellowship of Zimbabwe stepping down after financial dispute. (Mar. 22, 2001)

Catholic Clergy Concerned About Workers on Zimbabwe's White Farms | "This is no longer a free country," says Conference of Religious Superiors. (Mar. 22, 2001)

Clergyman Forced to Leave Zimbabwe After Criticizing Mugabe Government | Authorities revoke work permit of Presbyterian missionary who accused the government being involved in killings. (Mar. 19, 2001)

Zimbabwe Church Officials Tell Mugabe to Respect Judiciary and Rule of Law | Catholics, Baptists, and others criticize presidential pressure on Supreme Court. (Mar. 19, 2001)

Churches Call for Inquiry Into Zimbabwe's Pre-Election Violence | "In the meantime, accept the election results" says Zimbabwe Council of Churches (July 14, 2000)

Zimbabwe President's Party Refuses to Join Church-Sponsored Talks to End Violence | At least 10 dead in country's escalating political violence (May 2, 2000)

Evangelicals Abstain from Zimbabwe's Interfaith Body | Christian group opposes blending of Christianity and traditional African religion. (Apr. 18, 2000)

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)