President Robert Mugabe introduced a nongovernmental organization bill last summer that would ban all foreign human-rights groups in Zimbabwe and cut off foreign funding for NGOs. Church groups that have been vocal on human-rights issues will be under government scrutiny.

The law would permit only the existence of religious groups confined purely to religious work. It represents the latest effort by the authoritarian government to assert control over church groups.

"If you look at the bill itself, it doesn't come out and say churches, but the content and works described in the bill will encompass almost all work that is done by the church," said Frederick Chiromba, secretary general of the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops' Conference.

The bill, which was scheduled to go to a parliamentary vote in October, requires all NGOs to register with a government-appointed regulatory council and disclose details of their programs and funding. The council will have the power to formulate a code of conduct and decide who can be registered.

Organizations covered include those involved in charity work, humanitarian assistance, legal aid, animal welfare, environmental issues, and human rights. The government claims NGOs are Western proxies bent on destabilizing the country.

In recent years Christians have blasted the government for policies fostering starvation. The economy shrank by 13 percent in 2003.

With up to 80 percent of the population living under the poverty line, the Zimbabwe National Association of Nongovernmental Organizations (NANGO) contends that the NGO sector is a critical safety net for the nation.

More than 5,000 NGOs and faith-based groups work in Zimbabwe. NANGO is seeking to block the ban on foreign funding.

Fambai Ngirrante, ...

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