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Hope will prevail — eventually

26 June 2008

There is great suffering, but joy and resilience, too, in Zimbabwe, says Brian Castle

Seeds of hope: Harare Cathedral worshippers in a park

Seeds of hope: Harare Cathedral worshippers in a park

The cathedral congregation was listening very intently to the Gospel of the day from St Matthew: “Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. . .”

The congregation was from Harare Cathedral, where I was presiding and preaching the Sunday before last; these words were not simply an interesting account of the struggles of the first-century Church, they were the experience of many within the congregation. They were not meeting in the cathedral, but in a park by the swimming pool.

Like all the congregations in the area, it had been forced out of its place of worship by the police on the orders of Nolbert Kunonga, the former Bishop of Harare and avid supporter of Robert Mugabe.

Kunonga was elected Bishop in 2001, but his increasingly pro-ZANU-PF political stance alienated many Anglicans, until he withdrew himself from the Church in 2007, when he attempted to take the diocese out of the Province of Central Africa (News, 21 September). When he did leave, however, he took the Church’s assets with him, including the car and house of the bishop, as well as control of the diocesan offices (News, 26 October). The courts have not yet ruled that these assets do not belong to him.

A small number of priests followed Kunonga, and have remained in their vicarages, but they muster only a handful of people into church on Sundays. Kunonga has described President Mugabe as a prophet, and, like Mugabe, he wanted to cut off links with the West, and change the Anglican Church into a mouthpiece for ZANU-PF.

When he failed in this, and had been told by the Church of the Province of Central Africa that he was no longer Bishop, Kunonga has taken every opportunity to identify the Anglican Church with the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). This has attracted the ire of Mugabe’s ZANU-PF.

Not only have congregations been ejected from their churches, but they are also facing harassment when they have found alternative venues. There are many stories of congregations being forced to move from a house or hall because the owners of these places were subjected to threats and intimidation.

While I was travelling with a priest in a township outside Harare, he received a phone call, telling him that the owner of the house in which his congregation had worshipped for a number of weeks was threatened with violence by pro-Mugabe forces if she continued allowing Anglicans to meet on her property. That congregation is on the move yet again.

In the same township, I met churchwardens who had been arrested when gathering for worship. Another layer of harassment that has emerged is the raiding of church offices and the removal of files, in the hope of finding opposition propaganda.

Living with the uncertainty of raids and arrest is hard enough, but there are other exacerbating factors. The economy is in free fall. When I arrived, £1 sterling bought $4 billion Zimbabwe. The next day, it bought $6 billion. Respected economists reckon that inflation will have reached five million per cent by the end of this month.

These figures are so large that they appear meaningless, except to the Zimbabweans, whose buying power is reduced daily. Walking through the centre of Harare, there are queues of sullen-looking people outside banks and bakeries. As the shelves are so often empty, people do not go shopping, but rather they go in search of food. Unless you have access to foreign exchange, you can buy less and less.

Another consequence of the present situation is that many young Zimbabwean graduates look for work abroad. When families celebrate their young graduating, they see in them an escape from poverty. Graduates find work overseas, often impoverishing themselves to send money back to relatives in Zimbabwe. An outcome of this diaspora is a reduction in the young able to take part in the political system in their homeland.

Yet Zimbabwe is a beautiful country, and the people are resilient. After the withdrawal of the MDC from elections, the country is plunged into greater uncertainty. The spotlight is now on the response of the international community, with a focus on the countries surrounding Zimbabwe.

Any talk of sanctions should be set aside: it became apparent in my visit that, in the same way as those in positions of power, driving around in their Mercedes and four-wheel drives, have been hardly affected by the petrol shortage (which has forced long queues and petrol coupons on the rest of the population), so, too, it will be the ordinary population who will suffer from sanctions. As the African saying reminds us: “When the elephants fight, it is the grass which gets trampled.”

The people are not without hope. Many with whom I spoke saw this difficult time as a watershed: whatever way it went, there needed to be some shift from the present uncertainties and downward slide. While there was a sullenness in the queues, there was real joy in worship. It is only a matter of time before the message of joy, hope, and liberation spills out from worship into reality in the nation.

The way that many Christians were facing up to the situation in Zimbabwe is well summed up by a quotation that somebody passed on to me. “Jesus promised his disciples that they would be completely fearless, absurdly happy, and in constant trouble.”

May God bless Zimbabwe.

The Rt Revd Brian Castle is Bishop of Tonbridge. The diocese of Rochester has a link with the diocese of Harare.

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