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4 July 2008updated 24 Sep 2015 11:01am

Catholicism and Mugabe

Progressio's Steve Kibble on the complex relationship be

By Steve Kibble

Robert Mugabe of the African nation has a serious dilemma on his hands, despite having declared himself the winner of last Friday’s so-called ‘vote’. Desperate to legitimise his presidency, it seems he will stop at little.

Yet, as a supposedly practising Catholic in a deeply religious country Mugabe might want to think twice before unleashing the full force of his campaign of violence on those he sees as his enemies within the Church. Because if he does, he could lay up serious additional trouble for his ZANU-PF regime.

Twenty-eight years in power have slowly eroded Mugabe’s once reasonably healthy relationship with the core denominations of the Zimbabwe churches. Though supported to varying degrees by the Catholics, Anglicans and Evangelicals when he swept to power in 1980 – the Churches were as eager as anyone to see the end of the illegal Smith regime – Mugabe has slowly burnt his bridges.

Historically, the Zimbabwe churches, particularly the leaderships, have been largely quiet on Mugabe’s increasingly authoritarian rule. In the nineties, some in the church were concerned about increasing corruption and authoritarianism; yet found it difficult to break from support of the liberation movement to directly accuse ZANU-PF of being at the root of the country’s deepening troubles. There were also major problems for churches as they sought to devote themselves to the pastoral and theological struggle against HIV and AIDS. From the early 2000s there were also ever-greater numbers of people requiring food aid and humanitarian assistance.

Equally, by the early 2000s the lower ranks of the clergy had begun to organise themselves cross-denominationally to voice their opposition to increasing ZANU-PF demonisation of and attacks on any group that opposed it. After a stolen election in 2005, the churches also faced the fallout from ‘Operation Murambatsvina’. Though ostensibly an attempt to push illegal slum dwellers out of Harare, scores of innocent civilians were attacked and arrested and had their houses destroyed, forcing them to seek shelter in churches from where police often chased them out. From this point on there was increasing concern from church leaders, although most of them saw their role as one of attempting to bring reconciliation rather than openly lead opposition to the government and its actions.

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After a number of pastoral statements calling for an end to violence and poverty, but not apportioning blame, a turning point came in April 2007 when the Catholic Bishops’ Conference issued a statement. “God Hears the Cry of the Oppressed” squarely blamed the Mugabe government for spiralling inflation, rampant food shortages and widespread intimidation. The ZANU-PF response? Use of its youth militias to stop the pastoral letter being read out to congregations, threats against the clergy, and a successful campaign to remove leading ZANU-PF critic Pius Ncube, the Catholic Archbishop of Bulawayo.

Mugabe’s regime now looks to have lost the support of most of the churches, bar those who are supporters or beneficiaries of land and other gifts. In a country where around 90 per cent subscribe to a faith and 62 per cent attend Christian churches, Mugabe’s next steps will be critical. And they will be closely scrutinised across the region and the world.

The church could now be Mugabe’s ultimate challenge. Although violence against church groups is on the increase – members of the Zimbabwe Christian Alliance were recently arrested and detained for questioning in Harare – and although Mugabe has sanctioned attacks on every other sector, he may yet prove reluctant to unleash a full-blown campaign of intimidation against the churches per se.

Mugabe is already under fire from fellow regional leaders for the violence surrounding the electoral run-off. Coupled with last week’s unprecedented UN security council statement condemning government-led violence, any direct attacks on the church would see Mugabe shunned by his fellow southern African leaders, who are all nominally Christian. Given that Mugabe was refused an audience with the Pope on a recent visit to the FAO in Rome, he might not wish to invite further censure from the Vatican. This gives the churches significantly more space than others to stand up for the political, economic and social rights of their flocks.

So what option do church leaders now have? As the dust settles after Friday’s vote, they may well be tempted by the option of carrying on ‘as normal’, but for how long would that be possible as inflation hits 4 million per cent, xenophobia rises in neighbouring states, the economy collapses further and up to five million people require food aid? They may still denounce the illegitimacy of the result and call for an internationally or regionally supervised re-run and perhaps African peacekeepers. Or will they finally stick their necks out and say no to direct attacks on the church, including reports of parishioners being pulled from the altar and beaten up?

Will Zimbabwean churches now follow the example set by South African church leaders in the last years of apartheid and lead a campaign of non-violent resistance, albeit reluctantly? Undoubtedly they would prefer it if regional leaders were able to help find a solution, but time is running out for a peaceful end to the crisis.

Mugabe says only God can remove him from power. But it looks increasingly possible that the people of God will take the first concrete steps to help him on his way.

Steve Kibble is Advocacy Coordinator for Africa at Catholic advocacy and development agency Progressio

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