Churches engaged in soul searching over role in Zimbabwe's crisis

Some leaders fear the church will become irrelevant if it doesn't do more to speak out against the government

On a recent weekday evening, a dozen young members of the Bulawayo Baptist church met in their congregation's spacious hall for a jam session and prayer group. Seated on wooden benches amid scattered bibles, the young musicians animatedly discuss the topic of the day: praise and worship and the difference between them.

This is a church that would prefer to stay focused on its parishoners' spiritual - not political - education. But here in Zimbabwe, events on earth are not so easily ignored. President Robert Mugabe has tightened his grip on the country since winning reelection nearly a year ago. Zimbabwe is experiencing severe food shortages, skyrocketing unemployment, and heavy-handed repression of anyone who dares oppose the government.

Now spiritual leaders here are doing some soul searching about what their role in the crisis should be.

"God has heard the suffering of the people of Zimbabwe," says the Rev. Ray Motsi, the fiery pastor of this 3,000-strong congregation. "He has heard the cries of the people, not just in Israel, but also in Zimbabwe.... I don't believe the church should be involved in politics, but if politics means bread and butter issues, then I'll talk about it."

The role of African churches during crises has been an uneven one. The continent is full of haunting memories of times the church has failed to speak out for the poor and powerless - and even contributed to the turmoil. Some religious leaders here hope Zimbabwe won't be added to that list. While a few parishes have railed against Mr. Mugabe and his ruling party - even in the face of threats and violence - others have remained silent or even sided with the government.

"By and large, the church in Zimbabwe is fearful, docile, and selfish," says the small, stocky Mr. Motsi, whose manner bounces between intensity and lighthearted teasing. "The majority don't want to get involved because they are afraid they will be victimized by the government."

One of those who has been victimized is Archbishop Pius Ncube, head of the Bulawayo Catholic diocese. He is a tireless campaigner against the violence of Mugabe's regime. For his efforts, he has been vilified in the government press. These days he often sleeps in safe houses, but worries more about the safety of his elderly mother, against whom he says multiple threats have been made.

"It all depends on one man - Robert Mugabe," he says with conviction. "He is the source of all our suffering."

Fr. Ncube, Motsi, and several other ministers here have united to form Christians for Peace and Justice, a group of about 10 religious leaders and 100 members formed in response to the current crisis. But too few, they say, have joined the cause.

Indeed, not all churches here agree that the government is responsible for Zimbabwe's current plight, or that it is the responsibility of men of God to speak out against it. The majority have remained silent.

Still others have sided with the ruling party. The Anglican Bishop of Harare, Nolbert Kunonga, uses his sermons to praise Mugabe and last year attempted to ban 19 parishioners from church property for their opposition to his pro-government stances.

While government foes here in Zimbabwe take inspiration from those like Nobel-laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who was instrumental in ending South Africa's state-sponsored racism, and Martin Luther King Jr. - Motsi's personal hero - they also take warning from the places where churches here have failed.

Many African churches openly supported the slave trade, or opposed the fight for independence from European colonizers or for racial justice. In South Africa, for example, the Catholic church was criticized for its initial failure to challenge apartheid. In Nigeria, Christian and Muslim leaders have been accused of inciting religious violence that has left thousands dead in the past few years.

Still others have been closely tied to corrupt African regimes or have actively engaged in violence themselves. Last week, a Rwandan minister was sentenced to 10 years in prison by an international court for his involvement in that country's 1994 genocide.

"The [Zimbabwe] church runs the risk of becoming irrelevant if we don't speak out," says the Rev. Barnabus Nqindi, a handsome young Anglican priest who is saddened by the silence in his own church. "People will say, 'Where were you when I was hungry? When I was raped?' "

Fearing that churches are fomenting dissent, the government has tried to declare some meetings and church services illegal, and has prevented churches from feeding the hungry, saying that the food will be used to build support for the opposition party.

Motsi was arrested for distributing food, while Father Nqindi's colleague, Father Noel Scott, spent four days in jail before last year's election for leading a public prayer for Zimbabwe. Two weeks ago, a priest was strangled to the point of unconsciousness by police for taking pictures of a women's march against violence.

Back in his office before a trip to South Africa to garner support, Ncube - the man who may one day be remembered as Zimbabwe's version of Bishop Tutu - laments Zimbabwe's lack of religious leadership. In India, he says, there was Gandhi; in South Africa, they had Tutu.

Here in Zimbabwe, he says, there are more than 300 different churches, divided among and within themselves. While Ncube condemns Mugabe in Bulawayo, in Harare, priests serve him weekly communion.

"Mugabe has managed to divide us," he says. "Churches are no longer speaking with one voice."

"But," he adds, "we will not be bullied, whatever the cost."

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