Since my retirement from being caretaker Bishop of Harare, I have had time to reflect about the most extraordinary and shocking situation that the diocese has been plunged into for the past two-and-a-half years.
There are two issues, among others, to which I would like to draw particular attention: first, the lack of Christian solidarity with the persecuted Anglicans in Harare diocese; and, second, the fact that this persecution still continues, despite numerous assurances by high-ranking government officials that it would be brought to an end immediately (News, 12 March).
Our parishioners have regularly been blocked by police from entering church properties. In many instances, police have arrested worshippers and thrown them into cells for one or sometimes several nights. They have seriously injured some.
Last weekend, for example, there were running battles at many churches in Harare. Riot police used tear gas, and again arrested several people, among them the Dean of Harare, the Very Revd Farai Mutamiri, and a priest from the cathedral, the Revd Phineas Fundira. Meanwhile, another priest went into hiding.
Christians confess the universality of our faith (this is catholicity). As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12.26: “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together.”
Paul is writing this letter at a time when Christians were persecuted, reminding them that the local church in Corinth was representing the universal Church. So their persecution automatically affected fellow-Christians beyond their immediate community. This leaves no room for indifference whenever members of the Church universal are suffering persecution or any other adversity.
My experience as caretaker Bishop tells me that this passage has not been taken seriously by fellow-Christian leaders who belong to other denominations in Zimbabwe.
This became obvious when I approached them for the use of their church buildings on behalf of our congregations who were (and still are) not allowed to use their own churches. I did so under the assumption that we are brothers and sisters in Christ, only to realise that our brother- and sisterhood does not go beyond our denominational boundaries. Only one responded positively.
The persecution that Anglicans in Harare have experienced is unparalleled in the history of Zimbabwe. Yet, to my knowledge, no single church leader here has spoken up when our members have been beaten up and put in police cells. My assumption is that they fear persecution themselves — not by Mr Kunonga, the former Bishop of Harare, but by the police.
This lack of courage is not new. Church history the world over has many examples of churches that chose to identify themselves with the powers that be rather than speak up against injustice. We have to remind each other that the powers of this world come and go, but the Church universal remains. It is in this context that the Church will be judged by future generations.
On the other hand, many individual non-Anglican Christians have approached me, assuring me of their sympathy and prayers for the Anglican Church. Some have asked the same question about why other denominations in Zimbabwe have been silent on such a glaring example of injustice, perpetrated against ordinary members of one Church, whose only “crime” is to worship.
All this is happening in defiance of a court ruling only two weeks ago, that churches have to be shared between followers of Mr Kunonga and of the Church of the Province of Central Africa. This ruling, like many others in the past, has been disregarded by police. There are significant questions about who is behind it all; who can disregard the high court judgment.
One cannot help assuming that this persecution is also linked with the commonly held, and incorrect, view that the Anglican Church is a colonial Church — some are still calling it the “Church of England”.
All the main denominations in Zimbabwe have their roots outside the country. Their missionaries also worked hand-in-glove with the colonial government. On the positive side, all these denominations, Anglicans included, pioneered education and health services, among other things, to the benefit of all up to today.
It needs to be made very clear that the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe today is a member of the Church of the Province of Central Africa, which comprises four countries, and is autonomous.
Zimbabweans need to understand that the Archbishop of Canterbury is not a pope with central authority, but the spiritual head of the worldwide Anglican Communion. This means that he has no jurisdiction over the church provinces in other parts of the world.
The question remains whether the wrangle caused by Mr Kunonga has been taken as a welcome opportunity to vent political anger on the so-called colonial Church. The inability to stop this persecution leaves no doubt that there is more to it than meets the eye.
I am appealing to the other Churches in Zimbabwe to take their Christian solidarity seriously, and to the political leadership to do everything in its power to stop the persecution, and to reinforce freedom of worship (which is guaranteed by our national constitution).
Dr Sebastian Bakare was caretaker Bishop of Harare from November 2007 to July 2009. He is a former Bishop of Manicaland.