Even before Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe's troubles in the country's March 29 elections, an effort to create an independent Anglican church loyal to him had collapsed.

Support for Mugabe ally Bishop Nolbert Kunonga of Harare and his breakaway Anglican Church of Zimbabwe has all but disappeared, with the bishop's waning control maintained by government security services.

Since his election as Harare's bishop, Kunonga has been a source of controversy within Zimbabwe and the 77-million-member Anglican Communion. Educated at Cambridge University and Northwestern University, where he earned a Ph.D., Kunonga served on the faculty of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Seminary in Barrytown, New York, before returning to Zimbabwe to seek election as bishop in 2001.

In a racially charged election that critics say was influenced by the country's secret police, Kunonga defeated the white archdeacon of Harare in the race for bishop. He proceeded to align the leading diocese of Zimbabwe's second-largest denomination with the government. About 3 percent of the country's 13 million people are Anglican.

Kunonga drove off the diocese's white Zimbabwean clergy and purged its ranks of those deemed disloyal to the regime, causing half of the African clergy to flee abroad. To fill empty pulpits, he began ordaining clergy without theological training—including some members of the secret police, Zimbabwe's vice president Joseph Msika, and two government cabinet ministers.

The U.S. State Department and the European Union have banned Kunonga from entering the U.S. or Europe due to his complicity in crimes of the regime.

In August 2005 the bishop was also brought before an ecclesiastical court to face a 38-count indictment of misconduct, ranging from incitement to murdering fellow clergy to fraud, heresy, preaching racial hatred, and theft.However, the trial collapsed after witnesses refused to return to Zimbabwe out of fear for their lives.

In January, Kunonga announced the formation of the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe, independent of Canterbury and the Central African Province, which he claimed had been corrupted by homosexuals. The province responded by declaring Kunonga's seat vacant and appointing a retired Zimbabwean bishop, Sebastian Bakare, as his interim replacement.

In an interview with Voice of America on February 25, Bakare said all of Zimbabwe's Anglican congregations had abandoned Kunonga, as had most of the clergy. There was "no doubt" the schism was "politically motivated," he said, as "Kunonga wanted to deliver the Anglican diocese to ZANU-PF [Mugabe's political party]."

Kunonga and Bakare are currently at a standoff over Harare's cathedral. Despite a court order to share the building pending the outcome of litigation, Kunonga has barricaded himself inside and deployed state security officers to keep opponents away.

Observers say that Bakare's successful challenge of Kunonga presaged a weakening of Mugabe's power. The 84-year-old president's absolute rule over the country, which has lasted 28 years, has in recent years brought social, civic, and economic unrest, including an annual inflation rate of more than 100,000 percent.

For the first time since independence from Britian in 1980, Mugabe faced a serious challenge in the country's elections from within his own, and he fared poorly despite widespread efforts to rig the vote.

Zimbabwe's Electoral Commission said Wednesday that the Movement for Democratic Change, the main opposition party, won a majority of seats in the parliamentary elections. Official results from the presidential election have not yet been released, and MDC and ZANU-PF officials have issued conflicting statements over whether MDC candidate Morgan Tsvangirai had won enough votes to win the presidency without a runoff election.

Related Elsewhere:

Christianity Today's past coverage of Zimbabwe includes articles on Mugabe tampering with churches and accusing Pius Ncube.

CT Liveblog has more on the recent elections.

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