Zimbabwe: Faith alone is not enough

News and Press Release
Originally published
BULAWAYO, 3 May 2007 (IRIN) - A church-led mediation effort aimed at a negotiated solution to Zimbabwe's political crisis has been shaken by government claims that the clergy support the opposition, and that the interdenominational initiative has its own internal rifts.

A coalition of churches, under the banner of the Save Zimbabwe Campaign (SZC), has been attempting to bring President Robert Mugabe's ruling Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) to the negotiating table, to bury their differences and solve the country's deepening political and economic crises.

SZC made a cocktail of proposals, including constitutional and electoral reforms, ahead of next year's elections, but government recently condemned the church leadership as opposition activists pushing a regime-change agenda in the country.

"When the church movement started last year with the production of a document, entitled 'The Zimbabwe We Want', which was embraced by President Mugabe, we thought an end to the crisis had come," said Luke Sibanda, a social commentator.

"But, due to infiltration by the ruling party, the movement has weakened ... recent statements by government condemning church leaders as puppets mean Mugabe has closed the door on them," he alleged.

Information minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu told IRIN they had ample evidence that the ongoing prayer meetings organised by the SZC were an initiative to mount an anti-government crusade, with the intention of stirring a rebellion.

With inflation at 2,200 percent, many poverty-stricken Zimbabweans have sought refuge in religion and, according to observers, churches wield considerable influence.

The SZC is led by influential church leaders, such as the outspoken Roman Catholic Archbishop Pius Ncube and Raymond Motsi of the Presbyterian Church.

Ncube, a critic of the government, said a sense of mistrust had resulted in a campaign against the church movement. In some instances, he claimed, state security agents had been deployed in churches to spy on preachers.

The church campaign for reforms, which started two years ago, presented 'The Zimbabwe We Want' to the government last year. But internal differences have torn it apart: the Roman Catholic churches have been critical of the crackdown on pro-democracy activists, while Anglican Churches have remained resolutely behind the ruling party.

Catholic bishops recently distributed a pastoral letter, entitled 'God Hears the Cry of the Oppressed', urging Mugabe to step down. But their Anglican counterparts issued their own pastoral letter supporting Mugabe, and called on the United States and the European Union to lift sanctions, which they said hurt the poor.

Although there has been discord among church leaders over engaging with Mugabe, Ncube said prayer remained an integral part of the efforts being made to resolve the Zimbabwean crisis.

"The whole campaign against churches started when we organised a prayer meeting in Harare [in March], which was set to be attended by many peace-loving Zimbabweans, including political leaders. But because government has become alarmingly paranoid, it responded quickly and beat up a lot of people, including [Morgan] Tsvangirai himself [leader of one faction of opposition Movement for Democratic Change]," he said.

"What we are doing, as a church countrywide, is to pray for the nation, which has slid into a pathetic abyss. We even invite ZANU-PF leaders to attend and pray with us, but they refuse."

Ordinary Zimbabweans have been supportive of the churches' efforts to resolve the crisis. "It only needs courageous clergymen to sit down with the ruling party and the opposition to discuss pertinent issues," said churchgoer Tholakele Sibanda. "The suspicion between government and the church is not necessary at all."

Church leaders seen to be critical of government have either been briefly detained or threatened in the past few weeks.

SZC works with several political parties, civic groups and labour unions. It also has support from churches in South Africa and Malawi. At a recent prayer session in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second city, church leaders from the two countries said they supported the movement's initiative.

Churchgoers remain hopeful. "Even in apartheid South Africa, church leaders were influential in bringing about change, and I think the same is appropriate in Zimbabwe," said Sibanda. "Each time I go to church I pray that God ends the crisis that we are going through without any blood being spilt."