ANGLICAN bishops in Central Africa have for the first time ever put out a combined statement on the crisis in Zimbabwe.
Their pastoral letter, which denounced violence and highlighted the effect of sanctions on the poor, was widely interpreted as pro-Mugabe, and drew scornful comparisons with the uncompromising Easter letter issued by Roman Catholic bishops (News, 5 April). But light has since been thrown on its context by a respected signatory, the Bishop of Botswana, the Rt Revd Trevor Mwamba, and by the Bishop of Croydon, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, who returned on Wednesday from a diocesan visit to Zimbabwe.
The African bishops declare themselves “concerned and pained at the distressing occurrences that have been taking place in Zimbabwe”. The deteriorating economy, they say, has left ordinary Zimbabweans unable to make ends meet.
They continue: “This, we note, has been exacerbated by the economic sanctions imposed by the Western countries. These so-called targeted sanctions, aimed at the leadership of the country of Zimbabwe, in reality have affected the poor Zimbabweans, who have borne the brunt of the sanctions.”
The bishops call on Western countries to lift the sanctions, and the British and American governments to “honour their obligation of paying compensation to the white farmers”. They then ask the Zimbabwean government to “provide a framework of peace by creating a conducive environment for dialogue and tolerance”.
They denounce all forms of violence, and emphasise: “We want to make it unequivocally clear to all of our people that we do not condone what is happening in Zimbabwe.” They call for “a culture of governance that respects the sanctity of life”, and urge the Church to be prophetic, and to offer an effective pastoral ministry to the downtrodden.
Headlines in an Associated Press report proclaimed: “African Anglican Bishops support Mugabe”, and the pro-Mugabe Herald had “Anglican Bishops rap sanctions”. SW Radio Africa reported “Anglican Bishops blasted for supporting Mugabe”, and another AP report described the Anglican Church as “traditionally muted in its criticism of the government, with its leaders generally toeing the ruling party line”.
But Bishop Mwamba, who gave a keynote address to senior judges and others at the Ecclesiastical Law Society Conference in Liverpool earlier this year (News, 2 February), said on Tuesday that the letter had to be seen in the context of the Anglican situation in Zimbabwe. The spirit in which it had been sent was to support the progressive forces and the need for change, and was not in any way meant to be pro-Mugabe, he said.
Choosing his words carefully, the Bishop commented: “As you can imagine, in Zimbabwe there are divisions within the Church itself, and so there was a need to wean certain hearts and minds to be able to put forward a statement all the bishops could subscribe to.
“In that sense, yes, it does not appear as sharp as the pastoral letter from the Catholic bishops. It took a middle-of-the-road pastoral approach. Nevertheless, the sting is there in calling for drastic change, for the government to be called upon to create a conducive environment for that, and for the Church to stand forward and speak sharply in the context of its calling and prophetic ministry.” The Bishop described it as “the beginning of a long journey of bishops moving together — very gently, for need of carrying certain of our friends along.”
Bishop Baines added his own view of the story. He made unwanted headlines himself while on a ten-day visit with 20 members of his diocese as guests of Bishop Ishmael Mukuwanda (News, 5 April). Under the headline “Media lies about Zim — British clergyman”, a Herald story said that Bishop Baines had “criticised his country’s media for peddling lies about the situation in Zimbabwe, and said London has no right to dictate how Harare should run its affairs.”
Speaking from Zimbabwe on Tuesday, Bishop Baines said that after a courtesy call to the Midlands Governor in Zimbabwe, Cephas Msipa, the Governor had asked to meet him. He had not expected two national journalists, a television cameraman, and a reporter from President Mugabe’s office to be present as well.
“I took the judgement that if we pulled it at that point and said ‘no media’, then it would have come out that we were frightened of the discussion,” he said.
A discussion in which sanctions were mentioned and questions permitted elicited a response from Mr Msipa that was both “frank and fair”, said Bishop Baines, who described the Governor as having remained honourable throughout. The journalist — who later ran a story, “Clergyman slams UK media lies” — then accused the UK, among other things, of backing the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
“I came back robustly, and told him I seriously disputed much of what he had said in terms of content and analysis,” the Bishop said. “I told him that the ban on media, and particularly British media, did the country more damage than being open to bad stories and misrepresentations, and that, if they closed their doors to the media, they could not then complain that the media got the information second-hand, and the country did not get the stories it liked. “I told them the ban was counter-productive, and that Zimbabwe was blaming everyone but Zimbabwe for the plight it was in.”
The TV report did not appear, but when the headlines came out, Bishop Baines rang the Governor. “I told him, ‘I could go back to the UK and say we were the victims of Zimbabwean propaganda and manipulation, but I’m not a coward. I’m doing you the courtesy of telling you now that’s what I’m going to say when I get back.’ He understood, and was very embarrassed,” said Bishop Baines.
Regarding the African bishops’ letter, which had been used to criticise the Archbishop of Canterbury, he said: “The bishops have a serious problem with the Bishop of Harare [the Rt Revd Nolbert Kunonga]. If they divide, there are other implications that may give Bishop Kunonga what he wants. I appreciate the silence of the Anglican bishops more than I did before I came. It’s a mess. But they are not being silent on the ground.”