By Michael Paulson
Anglican worshipers in Zimbabwe are routinely being arrested and beaten, churches are being padlocked by police, diocesan bank accounts have been frozen, and clergy vehicles are being seized, Massachusetts Episcopal Bishop M. Thomas Shaw said yesterday after returning from a secret mission to the violence-torn southern African nation. Shaw, a frequent traveller to some of the world’s trouble spots, spent the last week in Zimbabwe at the request of the Episcopal Church’s presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, who asked him to visit to express support for Zimbabwean Anglicans and to gather impressions for the Episcopal Church. He said he interviewed 49 priests and also met with laypeople as well as human rights lawyers and US Embassy staff who described a worsening situation in Zimbabwe. The country, once a model for African independence, is now roiled by a collapsed economy and violence against critics of the repressive government.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been any place where the oppression has been that overt,” Shaw said in an interview yesterday. Shaw said Zimbabweans told him that beatings, jailings, and intimidation by police using dogs and batons have become routine elements of Anglican life in Harare, the country’s capital. He said one priest told him he has to sleep in a different home each night because of threats to his life; another priest was arrested the day after having lunch with Shaw, apparently for refusing to surrender a parish car. Shaw said he was told about a 9-year-old boy beaten in church, among many other stories of persecution and physical assault by government officials. “They [the government] literally have taken over all the [Anglican] property – people have access to the property during the week, but on the weekends, when church is supposed to take place, if they go into the church to pray or to hold services, there are riot police that are there immediately,” he said. “They’ve confiscated rectories…They’ve tried to confiscate all of the parish vehicles, and it’s practically impossible to buy a car or rent a car in Zimbabwe now, because of all the shortages, and so they take a car and they literally paralyze the priest from doing the pastoral ministry and taking care of people.”
Shaw said he would reach out to the Massachusetts congressional delegation and urge members to encourage the United States to continue to speak out about human rights violations in Zimbabwe. And he said he would also communicate to Episcopalians in the Boston area and around the nation, asking them to pray for Anglicans in Zimbabwe. “I can report that the situation in Zimbabwe is indeed grave,” he wrote in a letter to the congressional delegation yesterday. “There are widespread violations of human rights, daily reports of murder and torture and an economic and humanitarian crisis of enormous proportions. The inflation rate is one million percent and unemployment ranges between 80-90%. I have seen the long lines for gas and at banks and experienced the limited electricity and clean water and virtually empty shelves in supermarkets.” Zimbabwe, facing enormous economic and political turmoil, has become increasingly repressive in the wake of its March election, in which the opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, bested the longtime president, Robert Mugabe. The two men are to compete again in a run-off this month, and the Mugabe government has been cracking down on a variety of perceived opposition groups in anticipation of the election.
Zimbabwe is a former British colony and home to about 320,000 Anglicans, according to the World Christian Encyclopedia. The former bishop of the Harare diocese, a close ally of the Mugabe government, was excommunicated last fall, and is running a rival church; the remaining Anglicans are now often forced to worship in private homes, and Shaw last Sunday was the preacher at a gathering of several hundred worshipers in a parishioner’s backyard. Anglican officials have become increasingly outspoken about conditions in Zimbabwe. On May 29, Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, issued a statement accusing the Zimbabwe government of violating the UN Human Rights charter by denying residents freedom of worship. Jefferts Schori, in an e-mail from the Philippines, said she had asked Shaw to visit “to offer our prayers and concern . . . and to observe the conditions there.” “We continue to have great concern for the people of Zimbabwe, especially that they might be permitted freedom of worship and freedom from state-sponsored violence,” she said. “We will continue to raise our voices in solidarity with our sisters and brothers in Zimbabwe, and encourage other nations to exert pressure for an end to this violence. Given the developments of recent hours, particularly the detention of American and British diplomats, our concern continues to mount.”
Shaw, who traveled alone, said he was not personally harassed by security services – he entered the country escorted by the bishop of Harare, Sebastian Bakare, and traveled with Bakare through the Harare region – and did not witness violence. But he said worshipers repeatedly told him of being assaulted in churches by police and other officials. Speaking of a May 18 incident, Shaw said, “There were between 80 or 90 riot police that came into this church to break up the congregation, and these people refused to leave, and even though it was a very threatening atmosphere, they just stayed there and prayed and sang hymns together for over two hours while the police were threatening them and pounding on pews and there were police dogs.” But Shaw, who visited Zimbabwe in 1995, when the country was peaceful, said he was heartened by the ongoing commitment to faith of the Anglicans he met.
“Sunday I went to this really poor township, and over 400 people were worshiping in this yard of this person’s house, spilling out into the road,” he said. “It was an unbelievable experience. The enthusiasm, the joy that these people have is pretty profound.” Shaw said that, despite their poverty, the Zimbabwean worshipers took up a special collection to make a donation to a summer program for unprivileged children in Lynn. He said he is now hoping that the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts will help finance offices for the Harare diocese, which has been locked out of its headquarters by the government. “I preached about the fact that they are not isolated in the Anglican Communion, and that there were literally millions of people around the globe that . . . are praying for them,” he said. “And I preached about that they were a real model for the rest of us around the world, in the way that they are standing up against oppression, and not letting it get in the way of their worship for God.”