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A too-quiet diplomacy

As Zimbabwe spirals deeper and deeper into crisis, churches have begun to stand up to Robert Mugabe

By Gary Kenny

Sophie Musonda is deeply discouraged with the pastors in her church. They "preach to us on Sunday, hide behind the Bible and say that God says, `Blessed are the poor,'" she says. They are "out of touch with reality." For Musonda, "reality" is the utterly dismal state of economic and political affairs in her native Zimbabwe and the suffering it is causing millions of people like her.

When her husband died in 2002, Musonda felt the crushing weight of her country's collapsing economy. She found herself with no income and a five-year-old son, Nyika, for whom to provide. With inflation soaring and unemployment at 80 percent, her prospects were bleak. Desperate, Musonda (both her and her son's names have been changed to protect their identities) moved to neighbouring Botswana where she found employment as a domestic worker. Making the decision to leave was heartbreaking -- she had to leave Nyika, her pride and joy, behind. "I had no choice," she says. Musonda now earns a monthly salary of $150. Most of her earnings go to support her son and nine members of her extended family.

In an interview in Botswana last spring, Musonda told me she is ashamed of her denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Zimbabwe. "My church is silent" about the crisis, she said. They should stop using their Bibles to heap blessings on impoverished people like me, she added. They should stand up for justice, human rights and democracy like churches in South Africa did during the struggle against apartheid. Musonda remembers when prominent church figures like Desmond Tutu led peaceful but powerful street demonstrations against the apartheid regime. Where are the church-led public protests in Zimbabwe today, she wonders?

With some exceptions, Zimbabwe's churches and their leaders have been slow to stand up to the Zimbabwean government since the current crisis began in 2000. President Robert Mugabe has effectively used threats, intimidation and bribes to make many clergy either afraid or unwilling to speak critically. Many Zimbabweans say church leaders are partisan and, like Musonda, find the silence shameful. Increasingly, however, churches are becoming more outspoken, risking reprisals for their actions.

Zimbabwe, a former British colony, achieved its independence in 1980 when nationalist forces, led by Mugabe, won a long and bloody civil war. It quickly emerged as Sub-Saharan Africa's second-largest economy. For years, foreign tourism boomed and commercial agricultural production grew to the point where Zimbabwe became known as "Africa's breadbasket." But around 2000, things started going terribly wrong. The causes of the current crisis are many and intertwined. Colonization left a complex legacy of instability and problems including corruption and authoritarian patterns of governance. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund's lending and loan-repayment strictures compounded the situation. Zimbabwe was forced to cut social programs and privatize industries resulting in the loss of jobs.

These factors notwithstanding, a compelling case can be made for a string of recent government policy failures as the immediate causes of Zimbabwe's present woes. In 2000, Mugabe introduced a land reform scheme that forced most of the country's white commercial farmers off their land. In their place, he installed black Zimbabweans, many of whom lacked the skills or resources needed for large-scale farming. Land reform was clearly needed to address inequities in land ownership entrenched during the colonial years. Mugabe's ham-fisted solution to the problem, however, hardly helped. It caused a cataclysmic drop in commercial crop production, seriously limiting Zimbabwe's access to export earnings and dramatically diminishing the nation's food crops. As the economic situation has steadily worsened, so too have the living standards of ordinary Zimbabweans like Musonda.

At nearly 2,000 percent, Zimbabwe has the highest inflation in the world. Some 80 percent of Zimbabweans are unemployed. Most Zimbabweans can't afford even the most basic of foods. Transportation costs are prohibitively high, making it next to impossible for those who have jobs to get to work. The majority of the country's professionals -- including doctors, nurses, teachers and lawyers -- have fled the country, sending the health, education, public service and transport sectors into precipitous decline. With every passing day, the situation just gets worse.

Fearing widespread public unrest, the government has severely curtailed civil liberties. It typically reacts to public expressions of dissent with brute force. In April, police began using live ammunition and killed and wounded several members of the main opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change. Dozens of civil society activists have been arrested, jailed and tortured according to Zimbabwean human rights groups.

The Mugabe government's apparent disregard for its own citizens has attracted the attention of foreign governments. Britain, the United States and other Western nations have publicly condemned Mugabe's misrule and imposed sanctions. Their efforts appear to have merely emboldened Mugabe, who accuses them of racism and of having neo-colonial aspirations. Zimbabwe's southern African neighbours also have shown concern. The flow of Zimbabwean refugees across their borders, several million so far, is fuelling apprehension. However, the 83-year-old Mugabe is still revered in the region as a liberation hero. So far South Africa, Botswana, Mozambique and other southern African states have limited their response to quiet diplomacy.

Many now look to Zimbabwe's churches for an answer. All have been harshly criticized for remaining silent in the face of grievous human rights abuses. Some have appeared to take the government's side.

In April, the Bishops of the Church of the Province of Central Africa (Anglican), which includes Zimbabwe, said "Western economic sanctions" were the cause of widespread suffering in Zimbabwe. In fact, the sanctions only limit travel by senior government officials and deprive them of access to offshore assets. Dismayed at the bishops' comments, Father Barnabus Nquindi, an Anglican priest in South Africa, said they merely mimicked Mugabe. They failed to address issues of poor governance, corruption and lack of respect for the law. Nquindi added that the statement reaffirms what people say about Zimbabwe's Anglican Church -- that "it always toes the party line and that Anglican bishops are ZANU-PF (ruling party) men."

The Zimbabwe Council of Churches (ZCC), a United Church partner, also has drawn fire for allegedly siding with the Mugabe government. It called parliamentary elections, held in March 2005 and won by Mugabe's party, ZANU-PF, "free and fair." However, reputable international election monitoring groups documented widespread voter intimidation and fraud.

Reacting to the ZCC's perceived partisanship, some of its international partners cut or suspended funding. We in The United Church of Canada were concerned about the ZCC's statement but rejected the use of money as a means of expressing disapproval. After all, Zimbabwe is under effective authoritarian rule. State security forces may have threatened ZCC staff and officials with job loss, physical harm or even death. Mugabe's own words support this theory. At a National Day of Prayer meeting in June 2006, Mugabe explicitly warned clerics against being political. "When the church leaders start being political . . . we are vicious in that area," he said.

Following United Church principles of partnership, we opted for creative, constructive forms of engagement with the ZCC, including open discussion of the political constraints the churches face and theological reflection. Stories of Jesus' resistance to the forces of empire in first-century Palestine can be powerful and encouraging.

By no means are the churches ignoring the crisis. Last October, Zimbabwe's three main church groups -- the ZCC, Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops' Conference (ZCBC) and the Evangelical Fellowship of Zimbabwe -- released a 42-page document called "The Zimbabwe We Want: Toward a National Vision for Zimbabwe." Its authors hope it will generate constructive dialogue with the government to resolve the country's crisis. Plans call for the document to be distributed widely so the views of all political parties, the business community, civic organizations and grassroots Zimbabweans can be incorporated into a new draft. Mugabe gave his blessing to the process and apparently promised to seriously consider whatever new national vision emerges.

The process has its critics within the churches. Pius Ncube, Catholic archbishop of Bulawayo, has repeatedly risked his life hurling blistering public invective at Mugabe and his government. Last April, he made international headlines when he called Mugabe "mad for power and he will cling to it even if it means destroying Zimbabwe". With the exception of a few lesser-known clerics, Ncube's has been a voice in the ecclesial wilderness.

Ncube says the National Vision document was sabotaged. The published document is "not the document I signed," he told Catholic News Service last November. "Whole pages have been cut out, and it's been watered down so much that it's lost all its power and energy."

Other critics called the writers of the document "appeasers." Levee Kadenge, an outspoken bishop in the Methodist Church of Zimbabwe, says the ZCC, ZCBC and EFZ are squandering a golden opportunity to speak with one voice. They think that "by appeasing the government, they can get closer (to Mugabe and ZANU-PF) and achieve dialogue," Kadenge says. They should be a source of hope. They should speak with confidence and name things as they are. If they don't, Kadenge warns ominously, "there is going to be a catastrophe beyond our imagination." ZCC leaders acknowledge there are risks entailed in the New Vision process but believe they are worth taking. The United Church and other international partners are reservedly supporting them in their efforts.

There is evidence that the churches are finding their prophetic voice in other, more assertive, ways. In March, the ZCC issued what Kadenge and others think is a particularly encouraging statement. Addressing worsening violence in Zimbabwe, the Council denounced a recent government ban on political gatherings. It said the ban was actually provoking violence, and it also condemned "police brutality." Kadenge says the ZCC's actions give him hope. "I am excited by these latest developments." Even more promising, the ZCBC published a pastoral letter at Easter calling on Mugabe to leave office or face "open revolt" from those suffering under his rule. The letter, entitled "God Hears the Cries of the Oppressed," has been described as the most critical pastoral message from the Catholic Church since independence. In a line that must have made Mugabe, the former liberation leader, see red, the bishops say black Zimbabweans are today fighting for the same rights they fought and died for during the liberation struggle against white rule. The bishops perhaps hoped that Mugabe, a devout Catholic, would listen to reason. Instead he was only angered. The bishops are on "a dangerous path," Mugabe later warned.

Despite their different approaches in addressing Zimbabwe's crisis, the churches and their leaders are struggling in their own ways to respond faithfully to the biblical call to speak the truth to power. Progress is slow but understandably so under the circumstances. Zimbabweans like Musonda can perhaps be forgiven if they've grown cynical about the churches. What matters most to them at present is food and jobs for their families. We can hardly fault them for that.

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