THE Minister of Religious Affairs in Zambia, the Revd Godfridah Sumaili, has denied reports claiming that she is planning a crack-down on the country’s churches. The accusations emerged after the three Mother Church bodies in the country issued a joint statement calling for the release from prison of the opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema – known as HH.
The three church groups: the Catholic Bishops’ Conference, the Evangelical Alliance, and the Council of Churches — which includes the country’s Anglican church — also accuse the government of heading in an autocratic direction.
“Zambia eminently qualifies to be branded a dictatorship,” the church leaders said in a statement issued at a press conference last week, in Lusaka. “The fact of the matter is that only leadership that does not have the will of the people on its side — or thinks it does not have the will of the people on its side — uses state institutions to suppress that same will of the people.”
On Saturday, stories began to emerge of a government crackdown on the Churches. Ms Sumaili described the reports as “fake news”, and said that they were being propagated by “unpatriotic citizens”.
The Churches’ intervention comes after the speaker of the country’s parliament suspended 48 opposition MPs who boycotted a speech by the President, Edgar Lungu. The speaker, Dr Patrick Matibini, told the MPs that they should recognise the government’s legitimacy or resign.
Earlier, the opposition leader, HH, was arrested on a charge of treason after apparently failing to give way to the President’s motorcade. He has been charged with trying to overthrow the government, and is currently being held in a high-security prison awaiting a High Court trial.
He has consistently challenged the result of last August’s election, claiming fraud and electoral irregularities; but his legal challenges have all failed.
If convicted, HH faces the death penalty. His detention has been criticised by the campaigning group Amnesty International, which described the charges as “trumped up”.
The church leaders said that before issuing the statement, they attempted to speak privately with President Lungu, but he had refused to meet with them.
Before the elections last August, the church bodies called together various political leaders, including President Lungu, for an Indaba at the Anglican Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Lusaka. They had been concerned about rising political tensions. The leaders agreed a series of measures designed to reduce tensions and curb the activities of the parties’ campaigning cadres.