By Mark Michael
Zimbabwe’s Anglican bishops spoke up for their Roman Catholic colleagues, responding to vicious verbal attacks from leaders of the embattled government of President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
“The Anglican Council of Zimbabwe notes with concern the several responses by the Government of Zimbabwe to the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops Conference which seem to dismiss the fact that the Church is called to exercise its prophetic role, which can mean challenging our political leaders on their conduct of affairs, particularly if this affects the people of God,” they said in an August 24 statement, reprinted below.
The Catholic bishops’ pastoral letter, titled “The March is Not Over,” after a quotation from recently deceased American civil rights leader John Lewis, was read in churches across the inflation-crippled country on August 16. The Catholic bishops claimed that Zimbabwe faces “a multi-layered crisis of the convergence of economic collapse, deepening poverty, food insecurity, corruption and human rights abuses.”
The price of basic goods and services have doubled in Zimbabwe since the government sought to revalue the nation’s currency in June. Fuel prices have increased by over 500 percent since January, and demand for diesel is especially high because businesses must depend on generators to circumvent the government’s daily 18-hour electricity cuts.
The Catholic bishops had singled out for criticism the government’s violent suppression of protests on July 31, which allegedly included the abduction and torture of activists. “Fear runs down the spines of many of our people today,” the Catholic bishops wrote. “The crackdown on dissent is unprecedented … Our government automatically labels anyone thinking differently as an enemy of the country: that is an abuse.”
Monica Mutsvangwa, the government’s information minister, attacked the Catholic bishops’ letter as “evil” and accused them of promoting “regime change” and “civil war” in a statement printed August 16 in The Sunday Mail, an organ of the ruling ZANU-PF party. Mutsvangwa claimed that ethnic tensions between the dominant Shona ethnic group and the minority Ndebele were the real motivation behind the criticism, and accused the Catholic archbishop of Zimbabwe’s capital Harare, Robert Christopher Ndlovu, of aiming to “posit as the leader of the righteous Ndebele minority.” Citing the complicity of Rwanda’s Catholic hierarchy in that country’s 1994 atrocities, she said that Ndlovu was “inching to lead the Zimbabwe Catholic congregation into the darkest dungeons of Rwanda-type genocide.”
The Anglican bishops claimed instead that the Catholic bishops’ letter arose from the Church’s responsibility to speak on behalf of the oppressed. “Since time immemorial, the Church in Zimbabwe has spoken against injustices,” the Anglican bishops said. “The Church has the biblical mandate to speak without fear or favor, particularly to a government which believes that the ‘voice of the people is the voice of God.’”
Conflict focused on the policies of Zimbabwe’s ruling ZANU-PF government is not new to the life of Zimbabwean Anglicanism. The Rt. Rev. Nolbert Kunonga, the former Bishop of Harare and Mashonaland, was an ardent supporter of President Mnangagwa’s predecessor, the notorious Robert Mugabe, whom he called “a prophet of God.” Kunonga attempted to engineer a secession of his diocese from the Anglican Province of Central Africa in 2005 when he fell under criticism by fellow clerics for his strong support of the long-serving president, and was eventually excommunicated in 2008. Property battles between the Diocese of Harare and Kunonga’s splinter church continued until 2014, when Zimbabwe’s Supreme Court ordered the former bishop to hand over the churches his followers had occupied to the Diocese of Harare.
The harsh exchanges between Mnangagwa’s government and the Catholic bishops also evoke clashes between Mugabe and the former Catholic Archbishop of Bulawayo, Pius Ncube, who was among his most vocal critics. Ncube, who like Bishop Ndlovu is an ethnic Ndebele, was silenced in 2007 after videos were released by the Zimbabwean press purporting to show Ncube in his bedroom with a married woman. When announcing his decision to resign as archbishop, Nucube said that he had been subjected to a “vicious attack not just on myself, but by proxy on the Catholic Church in Zimbabwe,” and that his resignation was meant to shield his church from similar aggression.
The Evangelical Fellowship of Zimbabwe affirmed its own solidarity with the Catholic bishops in a statement issued on August 17. Pentecostal bishop Never Muparutsa, the group’s president, told Christianity Today, “The Catholic (Bishops’ Pastoral) Letter was trying to provoke discussion, not give an insult. It pointed out problems like all of us were doing. But it received such a strong (Government) backlash. We felt that given the situation in the country if we just stand by and watch, we don’t know what will happen. We have journalists and activists in prison. There have been abductions with perpetrators unidentified, making us all vulnerable. So, this prompted us to stand with the Catholics, because an insult to one is an insult to all.”
The text of the letter follows:
“Son of man, I have made you watchman to the house of Israel; therefore, hear the word at my mouth and give them warning from Me”. (Ezekiel 3:17) The Anglican Council of Zimbabwe (ACZ) writes in solidarity to the pastoral letter issued on 14 August 2020 by the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops Conference entitled “The March is Not Ended”. ACZ notes with concern the several responses by the Government of Zimbabwe to the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops Conference which seem to dismiss the fact that the Church is called to exercise its prophetic role, which can mean challenging our political leaders on their conduct of affairs, particularly if this affects the people of God.
We write this message to highlight our concerns and emphasize that “Indeed the “March is Not Ended” unless and until the issues raised by the people of Zimbabwe and also echoed by the bishops are attended to and resolved holistically.
We wish to register our concerns to the several responses of the government which we feel were counterproductive to the efforts being made by many stakeholders including the Church to unite the nation.
We make it abundantly clear that since time immemorial, the Church in Zimbabwe has spoken against injustice and has been consistent in that regard. Any view or postulation to the contrary would be an attempt to re-write that narrative in order to promote a negative picture of what the Church stands for. The Church has the Biblical mandate to speak without fear or favour, particularly to a government which
believes that “The voice of the people is the voice of God.” The prophetic ministry of the Church mandates it to speak for God and for His people as it is the ambassador of Christ and God is appealing through it. (2 Cor. 5:20).
As Anglican Bishops, we desire to see an engagement of all stakeholders (as requested by Zimbabwe Heads Of Christian Denominations (ZHOCD) and respect of the Constitution of the land and institutions thereof for the good of our nation and (Proverbs 11:14); victory for the nation as we, together, overcome all our challenges.
We also call upon the citizens of this our beautiful nation to remain calm, pray for peace and to work towards all that promotes peace and the common good. We also call upon all Christians and other religions to pray for our leaders and the nation at large for peace, stability and prosperity. To our brothers and Roman Catholic Church in particular, we say we are holding you in our prayers and
May the Blessing of the Almighty God strengthen you and be with you now and forever.
+Ignatios Makumbe ACZ Chairman (Diocese of Central Zimbabwe)
+Godfrey Tawonezvi (Diocese of Masvingo)
+ Cleophas Lunga ( Diocese of Matabeleland)
+ Erick Ruwona (Diocese of Manicaland)
+ Farai Mutamiri (Diocese of Harare)