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News > World >

Joy for Church in Zimbabawe as court rules in its favour in property dispute

by Pat Ashworth

ap

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THE rule of law has triumphed and the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe has finally won justice in the Supreme Court, after a costly five-year legal battle, and a decade of attempts to deal with the excom­municated former Bishop of Harare and ally of President Mugabe, Nolbert Kunonga.

The British Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Deborah Bronnert, an Anglican worshipper in Harare, described the news as "a good day for Christians of all denominations, and for freedom of religion". The Bishop of Harare, the Rt Revd Chad Gandiya (above), told reporters after the judgment had been read on Mon­day: "We waited. We have been vin­dicated. This is God's doing."

Since seceding from the diocese in 2007 and setting up their own alternative church and province, Kunonga and his followers have terrorised and persecuted the legitimate Anglican Church. Aided by dubious court rulings, and often with the active co-operation of the police, they have appropriated its buildings and assets, and subjected worshippers to what the Archbishop of Canterbury described as "a grave litany of abuses" when he con­fronted President Mugabe in Harare last year ( News, 14 October 2011).

The diocese had been what Bishop Gandiya described as "cautiously optimistic" about the outcome of the hearing, held three weeks ago, when the evidence was properly considered for the first time and judgment was given against the excommunicated former Bishop of Manica­land, Elson Jakazi ( News, 26 Oc­tober).

All the appeals by Kunonga have been dismissed. He has been ordered to return the property, and pay some of the costs. The legal case centred on whether Kunonga and his followers had withdrawn their membership of the Anglican Church when they voluntarily left it, and whether they could therefore still be members of the Board of Trustees, a matter which vitally concerned the legitimacy and incumbency of the Bishop of Harare.

A judgment by Justice Ben Hlatsh­wayo in 2009, which recog­nised Kunonga as the incumbent bishop, and his supporters as the legitimate Board of Trustees, has now been overturned. Monday's judgment made clear that "the learned Judge was wrong in giving Dr Kunonga and his followers the right to possess and control the property of the Church without its consent. They had no right to con­tinue in possession of the congrega­tional buildings when they had departed from the fundamental principles and standards on which the Church is founded. They left it putting themselves beyond its ec­clesiastical jurisdiction."

The judges also pronounced: "The facts show that Dr Kunonga was no longer a Diocesan Bishop in Harare. . . When they left the Ang­lican Church, they disentitled them­selves from continuing as members of the Board of Trustees of the Church. . . They used the property and continued to control it without the approval of or authority from the Provincial Synod. . .

"When one leaves a club, one does not take its property with him or her. . . It is common cause that the property belongs to the Church. It has a right to an order for vin­dica­tion of its property from pos­ses­sors who have no right to have it."

Kunonga used the pretext of the issue of homosexuality to secede from the province. Over the many years of the dispute, this has been given credence and reported as fact, with scant regard to what had gone before: a campaign of alleged abuse and violence that led to an ecclesias­tical trial in 2005 on 38 counts that included incitement to murder. In an atmosphere of intimidation, the trial was aborted and Kunonga walked smiling from the court. He has still not been prosecuted for any of his crimes.

Reflecting on the origins of the dispute, the judges concluded: "A debate which had started in the Church some time back on the question whether homosexuality was being tolerated by the ecclesias­tical authorities reached crisis point in August 2007. . .

"Dr Kunonga and his followers held very strong views on the ques­tion of tolerance of homosexuality. . . [They] reached the stage where they regarded it as a matter of faith that homosexuals and members of the Church who supported and sym­pathised with them should not be associated with."

The judges reflected, however, that Kunonga's principle of exclu­sion of homosexuals and their sup­porters and sympathisers from the public worship of God, was opposed to "the fundamental principles of a free offer of redemption and salva­tion of Christ on the basis of which the Church is founded."

Victory has come too late for the late Bob Stumbles, Chancellor of the diocese of Harare, whose tireless campaigning for justice and precise documenting of legal developments over many years did so much to keep the Kunonga case in the public eye. Other lawyers involved in the early years have expressed their delight at the news. Jeremy Lewis, who received threats after prosecut­ing at Kunonga's aborted trial, said on Tuesday: "The roofs of our Ang­lican Churches will be raised, and our refurbished organs thunder the joyous day of reckoning we all knew would have to come. Its advent with Christmas is an added blessing."

Ms Bronnert said: "I am de­lighted at the news that the Ang­lican Church in Zimbabwe has won its court cases in the Supreme Court of Zimbabwe, and that now church property . . . should be returned to its rightful owners.

"I also welcome the spirit in which Bishop Chad Gandiya has responded to the news, and his call to his Church to be gracious in victory. I look forward to worship­ping in my own church building, and in the Anglican Cathedral in Harare."

Bishop Gandiya, who could not be consecrated in his cathedral, and has not been able to enter it since becoming Bishop of Harare, ex­pressed his happiness on Monday. "We were cautiously confident that things had changed and that the rule of law was going to take its course, which it has," he said. "What­ever caused the change, we feel vindicated and that we can move on with our lives and the work of the Church. There is great joy and excitement all around."

The diocese now faces a huge task in retrieving and repairing its property, much of which Kunonga had turned over to secular use, and restoring its vital health and edu­cation services.

Bishop Gandiya wanted to say, through the Church Times, a big thank-you for the support of the Anglican Communion, "to all those who have been supporting us and praying for us."

Dr Williams expressed his true delight at the news on Tuesday, de­scribing it as heralding a new era for the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe. "We can at last say that there is justice for a long-suffering and beleaguered community. . .

"The hope must also be that this is a sign of better things to come eventually for all the people of Zimbabwe: the rule of law is not, after all, extinct."

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