THE Bishop of Massachusetts, in the United States, the Rt Revd Thomas Shaw SSJE, has seen at first hand the increasingly desperate situation in Zimbabwe during a week-long visit to the African country.
Bishop Shaw was asked by the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States, Dr Katharine Jefferts Schori, to go to Zimbabwe as an act showing solidarity with the people there.
He met the Bishop of Harare, Dr Sebastian Bakare, interviewed 49 of the clergy, and met about 50 lay people, including lawyers defending Zimbabweans detained by President Robert Mugabe’s regime.
The trip culminated in Bishop Shaw’s preaching and concelebrating at a eucharist in the garden of a private house, attended by about 400 Anglicans who have been ousted from their church buildings. He said that the people’s resilience in the face of such opposition reminded him of the Christians in the Acts of the Apostles.
“To see these Christian men and women in the face of such persecution was a very powerful experience,” Bishop Shaw said. “These people have gone through real persecution, but the spirit of the people is amazing. One of the priests said to me: ‘You can take away our jobs; you can physically threaten us; but you can’t take away our faith.’
“Inflation is now at one million per cent. I went into as many shops as I could, and there’s nothing on the shelves. Unemployment is huge, and there is no electricity for up to 17 or 18 hours a day. There’s a lot of tension and deprivation. I spoke to some priests who had been jailed overnight and had their vehicles confiscated, and had witnessed the brutality of the riot police.”
Bishop Shaw said that there was still uncertainty over the future, as the run-off on 27 June for the presidential elections approached. “Some people felt that change was definitely in the offing. Others felt the repression would continue; while others thought a government of national unity could come about. Others felt nothing would change, as the government has too much invested in the status quo, while some cling to the hope Morgan Tsvangirai will win power.
“Some people I spoke to in the US Embassy felt violence would lessen in the run-up to the election, but in fact it has increased.”
Bishop Shaw said that Zimbabweans were deeply touched by the prayer and solidarity across the Anglican Communion, and called for the international media to keep the country in the spotlight.
Evidence of the increasing brutality in the country came to light this week in reports of a crackdown on Christian groups in Harare.
On Monday, riot police raided the Ecumenical Centre in Harare which houses the Student Christian Movement of Zimbabwe (SCMZ) and the Zimbabwe Christian Alliance (ZCA). Both have been vocal campaigners for democracy.
The general secretary of the SCMZ, Prosper Munatsi, was arrested, with four other staff members. Five members of the ZCA, a partner of Tearfund, were also detained.
Those arrested were taken to Harare Central Police Station for questioning. It is reported that one staff member was assaulted during the raid. It is understood that riot police seized copies of the ZCA’s March newsletter.
Useni Sibanda, national co-ordinator for the ZCA, said that the raid and detention of staff was an example of the harassment that church organisations now routinely faced in Zimbabwe. “We are just doing our usual work, and we don’t understand why we should be attacked by riot police like this.”
Karyn Beattie, Tearfund’s Zimbabwe Disaster Management Adviser, said that church leaders in Zimbabwe would continue to try to help the poorest in society. “We have been seeing more and more intimidation, much of it aggressive, against our church partner organisations.”