Pastors and advocates report that a new wave of persecution is washing over the churches of Zimbabwe as the country prepares for a new round of elections called by President Robert Mugabe and his ruling ZANU PF party.
Churches are "being targeted and harassed by security agencies and militias which are controlled by ZANU PF," said Marlon Zakeyo, the Zimbabwe advocacy coordinator of the World Student Christian Federation in Geneva. They are "in need of active and practical international solidarity and prayer," he said.
Reports from the Central African nation state that leaders of many of the country's evangelical, Anglican, Roman Catholic, and African Independent Churches—especially the Zion Christian Church and the VaPostori Apostolic sects—are being pressed into service by the regime to cement its hold on power.
While the former Anglican bishop of Harare, Nolbert Kunonga, has long used his church to back "Zimbabwe's Moses," ZANU PF is also alleged to have made a concerted effort to bring the Apostolic churches under its control.
Over the past two years members of the opposition party, MDC, have been expelled from many Apostolic churches, and some pastors have reportedly been killed for refusing to support the regime. The Zimbabwe Briefing, a South Africa-based publication supporting Mugabe's ouster, reports that some Apostolic leaders are telling their followers—estimated to number approximately 1 million—that Mugabe is the Archangel Gabriel and God's anointed ruler for Africa.
Zimbabwe Christian Alliance (ZCA) executive director Useni Sibanda has condemned the political "invasion" of the Apostolic churches, and has urged "church leaders to maintain their credibility by not allowing themselves to be manipulated by politicians."
ZANU PF spokesman Gadzira Chirumhanzu said it was not possible for church and state to live independent lives. However, he told Christianity Today the party "does not interfere in one's beliefs; be he Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or whatever."
"There is no way a church can divorce itself from society, politics, or whatever," said Chirumhanzu, the party's director of Science and Technology. "Rules and regulations governing churches, sects, you name it are promulgated in parliament, hence I don't see how Useni wants to achieve his organization's objective if it does not participate in politics one way or the other."
Churches that have opposed the ZANU PF party line have met with violent suppression. On April 20, police stormed an ecumenical prayer service held at the Church of the Nazarene in the Harare suburb of Glen Norah. Organized by evangelical leaders under the theme "Saving Zimbabwe, the Unfinished Journey," the service commemorated a 2007 prayer service where police shot and killed an opposition leader and jailed over 100 pro-democracy activists.
A video of the April incident shows that after firing tear gas into the church, police drove the congregation from the building, beating those slow to respond with truncheons. Nazarene Pastor Paul Mukome reported that ten worshippers and four pastors were arrested, while the vice-chairman of the Harare MDC was severely beaten.
A Roman Catholic priest told The Tablet, a U.K.-based Catholic publication, that clergy were also subjected to arbitrary arrest and questioning. "There's no freedom of speech. You preach that people are hungry and the moment you say people are hungry those in authority feel attacked. So you are an enemy," the unnamed priest said.
Politics was driving this issue, the current Anglican bishop of Harare, Chad Gandiya, said. President Mugabe has "insisted on holding" elections this year. The MDC opposes the push since the country still has not adopted a new constitution.
The political parties were "vying for support and the church is seen as a source" of votes, Gandiya said. "Unfortunately, those that are deemed to be non-cooperative are then harassed. Various members of the president's party have gone to gatherings of various churches, especially the African Independent Churches, to try to win their support. They don't seem to have done the same with the mainline churches. One possible reason could be that the mainline churches would not give them the same kind of platform."
For Anglicans, the fight "in our church is political but dressed in religious clothing," Gandiya said. "Nothing has changed. We continue to be harassed and prevented from using our church buildings while Dr. Kunonga is assisted by the police in his ambitious expansionist [plans]."
But in the midst of the political infighting, the churches continue to do their "holistic ministry quietly," he said. "Our population is greatly traumatized and in need of healing. Our people are afraid. Please pray that our leaders take the lead in encouraging people not to engage in violence."
Paul Mukome, the Nazarene pastor, agreed that prayer is necessary—but his prayer request differed. "The biggest message for Zimbabweans is that the time to pray has come," he said. "We have to pray harder for our leaders so that they know how to lead through the image of God."
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Earlier Christianity Today articles on Zimbabwe include:
Habakkuk in Zimbabwe | We're hungry, angry, and depending on a sovereign God. By a Zimbabwean pastor-scholar (July 24, 2008)
Thug Bishop | An ally of Zimbabwe's corrupt president fails in bid to launch a replacement Anglican province. (Apr. 3, 2008)
Pius and Impious | Mugabe infiltrates churches, intimidates leaders. (Oct. 16, 2007)
High-Stakes Protest | Church leaders confront President Mugabe. (May 7, 2007)
Zimbabwe Nightmare | Christians try to negotiate ministry in southern Africa's most failed state. (Apr. 1, 2006)