Harare – Gilbert Mhangwa shakes his head dejectedly as he walks away after turning up for a service at Harare’s Anglican Cathedral, only to find the entrance blocked by a gang of youths. A few metres away, riot police brandishing batons disperse disgruntled parishioners who later stage an impromptu prayer session outside the imposing granite-block building. “We are not enjoying our full rights as Zimbabweans,” complains the Right Reverend Sebastian Bakare, the new bishop of Harare. The cathedral in downtown Harare, normally associated with soothing Sunday morning hymns, is at the centre of a power struggle between a clique led by former bishop Nolbert Kunonga and the rest of the church. Bakare’s investiture late January, which would have normally taken place in the cathedral, was moved to a sports arena on the outskirts of the city after gangs aligned to his predecessor Kunonga barricaded the cathedral entrance.
A close ally of President Robert Mugabe who has often showered praise on Zimbabwe’s veteran leader, Kunonga has refused to vacate the church and surrender church property to his successor despite two court orders. Kunonga, who was once referred to as “my spiritual father” by Mugabe and officiated at the president’s swearing-in in 2002, was stripped of his title last after he attempted to pull his Harare diocese out of the Anglican Church’s Province of Central Africa over its stance on homosexuality. He then formed the self-styled Anglican Church of Zimbabwe in January, while insisting he was still the legitimate head of the diocese. Analysts say Mugabe, who has himself called gays “worse than dogs and pigs”, is protecting Kunonga, one of his few supporters in the church. “It’s typical of Zanu PF,” said Bill Saidi, deputy editor of the Zimbabwe Independent. “Wherever it thinks it can get support it shoves its nose. But the people will not be fooled by religious charlatans like Kunonga.”
Mugabe, a Catholic, has often come under criticism from other church leaders over his government’s human rights record tainted by events like the killing of thousands by a crack army unit in the Matabeleland province in the early 1980s and the demolition of slums which left tens of thousands without homes in 2005. But despite being embarrassed by such criticism, Mugabe has nevertheless treated the church with a degree of respect and meets with religious leaders despite refusing to do so with opposition parties. “We can’t do without each other, the church and the state,” he acknowledged at a prayer rally two years ago. “Mugabe knows the church has a moral voice,” Jonah Gokovah, of the Zimbabwe National Pastors’ Network, told AFP. “When the church speaks it’s listened to – that is why the government is trying to use certain individuals like Kunonga to influence the church to sing its song.”
Mugabe last year warned bishops they had chosen “a dangerous path” after they published a pastoral letter critical of his government’s policies and deploring the mismanagement of the economy. “When the church leaders start being political, we regard them as political creatures and we are vicious in that area,” Mugabe said. One of his most outspoken critics, Pius Ncube, was shortly afterwards forced to step down as archbishop of Bulawayo in September after state media published photographs of him in bed with a married woman. Ncube was a constant thorn in the side of Mugabe’s government, calling for people to rise up against his rule and once declaring his readiness to “go in front of blazing guns”. But despite Ncube’s downfall, church groups such as the Christian Alliance of Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwe National Pastors Conference and the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops Conference have remained critical of Mugabe’s government.
The church groups have been countered in recent years by organisations such as the Destiny for Africa Network which have sprouted in recent years to rebut Mugabe’s critics and castigate his opponents.
Exhorting Zimbabweans to vote Mugabe and his ruling party in general polls next month, the Reverend Obadiah Msindo, a leader of the Destiny for Africa Network, likened the ruling Zanu PF party to the biblical Moses. “Zanu PF is a revolutionary party that has a special message to deliver Zimbabweans into a land of milk and honey,” Msindo said in message broadcast on national television. “We are inspired by his excellency’s vision for total black empowerment.” Bakare criticised such church leaders saying they were departing from from their mission by aligning themselves with political parties. “If you are a leader in church and you have no mission or you don’t understand your mission, you are likely to be co-opted even by political parties and they can make use of you,” he told AFP.