BULAWAYO - Four clergymen were arrested on Wednesday night as the police raided churches in Bulawayo and forcibly removed at least 500 people who had sought shelter there after their homes were demolished by the government.
The 500 homeless people were taken to a holding camp at Helensvale Farm about 20km outside Bulawayo.
In what the churchmen have described as a retribution campaign by the government against the church for sheltering displaced people, South African cleric Rubin Phillip, his Zimbabwean colleague, Ray Motsi and another clergyman were arrested when they attempted to investigate reports that the police were evicting people in the dead of night.
A fourth clergyman, Barnabas Nqindi, was arrested and questioned after a reporter who was filming the forced removals in Nketa suburb left his camera in the priest's car as he fled the police. All the clergymen have since been released without charge.
Philip, who is a Methodist church bishop in Soutrh Africa's KwaZulu-Natal, said: "As such it points towards a deliberate retribution campaign on the part of the ruling party against church and civil society leaders for offering support and refuge to those displaced by the violent destruction of their property, and for allegedly giving negative reports to the United Nations and SACC (SA Council of Churches) envoys on the government's clean-up operation."
Addressing a press conference later yesterday on behalf of churches in Bulawayo, Motsi said the forced removal of homeless families from churches by the government was "inhuman, brutal and insensitive and in total disregard of human rights."
Motsi said the church leaders watched helplessly as police officers armed with baton sticks ordered families to wake up and get into waiting trucks.
"One woman was even pulled into the truck because she was frail. Children who were already asleep were woken up by the riot police and frog-marched into the open police trucks.
"This was the story in all the churches where they picked up the people throughout the city. This operation was undertaken under the cover of darkness between 9pm and 5am," he said.
The forced removals continued yesterday with some pastors telling Zimonline that the police had been given 24 hours by the authorities in Harare to move all the people from the churches to the holding camp.
Earlier this week on Tuesday, the church leaders were barred from entering the holding camp with the government saying they would need permission from Bulawayo governor Cain Mathema to do so.
At least a million people have been thrown onto the streets after their houses were destroyed in a campaign the government says is necessary to smash crime and restore the beauty of cities and towns.
The United States, Britain, human rights and church groups have all condemned the clean-up exercise as a violation of the rights of the poor.
A South African church delegation in Zimbabwe to assess the clean-up exercise has promised to mobilise aid for the thousands of evicted families in Zimbabwe. - ZimOnline