21 March 2006 — Increasingly, church leaders are taking time away from their pulpits and from tending the sick to protest against growing human rights abuses, corruption and political repression that their congregations are enduring.
Clerics drawn from traditional Protestant and Pentecostal churches are speaking out against government abuses at public meetings and acting collectively through their recently-launched Christian Alliance.
Jonah Gokova, an official with a church charity called Ecumenical Support Services, an coordinator of the Christian Alliance, says the organisation’s mission is “to bring about transformation in our nation through prophetic action”, and admits that it was born as a result of pressure from Christians who had become disillusioned by the church’s silence on issues of human rights abuses by the government, the security forces and militias.
“When people are going through a phase of suffering, particularly when the suffering is human-induced as we have in Zimbabwe, people are always saying where is the church? Why is the church not speaking out against these injustices?” said Gokova.
“We are responding to these concerns to create a situation where people can begin to hear leaders within the church speaking out against the injustices and the suffering of the people.”
The Christian Alliance wants to pressure the government into a new culture of listening to the voices of the downtrodden. “The government continues to ignore the voices of its citizens while conditions go on deteriorating,” continued Gokova.
Another group of ordained and lay church leaders, calling itself Christians Together for Justice and Peace, has been helping victims of state violence get treatment. It also compiles reports detailing atrocities perpetrated by state security agents against perceived government enemies. The group also issues press statements denouncing such government policies as the national youth training programme.
Once the youths graduate, they are assigned to militias loyal to Robert Mugabe, which are used by the president to enforce rule by his ZANU PF party and to intimidate opposition supporters.
In Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second city, church leaders have come together to form a group called Churches in Bulawayo to provide a united response to the suffering caused by Operation Murambatsvina (Operation Drive Out the Filth). In Murambatsvina, presented as an urban renewal scheme, hundreds of thousands of people, most of them opposition supporters, saw their homes in the suburbs and squatter camps of the main cities and towns destroyed by Mugabe’s police and militias.
One of the pastors, Albert Chatindo, works closely with squatters from the Killarney transit camp outside Bulawayo, where thousands of people had their homes destroyed in Murambatsvina.
Pastor Chatindo says his role has been confined quietly to helping ease the suffering of the victims of the mass destruction of homes. He says he and his colleagues have witnessed horrific abuses of people at the hands of the authorities.
Chatindo claims to have seen people die without receiving medical treatment, and watched helplessly as children as young as five die from cold and hunger.
Pastor Ray Motsi, of the Bulawayo Baptist Church and a leading member of the Christian Alliance, says people whose homes were destroyed in Murambatsvina had “done nothing but commit the crime of poverty. Government should admit that all is not well instead of beating citizens into silence”.
Gokova says the Christian Alliance is building on such existing regional efforts by Christian leaders to give Zimbabwean religious leaders what he terms a “national expression”. He adds that the alliance aims to become a national platform for religious institutions, enabling its members to cooperate in resolving social, economic and justice
He says his organisation will also work with civic organisations such as the National Constitutional Assembly – which groups many bodies campaigning for democratic reform – in calling for a new constitution.
Analysts have long been forecasting that the next step in Zimbabwe’s political development will be an alliance between opposition political parties and civic and church groups to form something equivalent to the Mass Democratic Movement, which took over the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa after the African National Congress was banned and exiled.
Gokova says the clerics will not hesitate to take part in street protests. “As Christians we have to organise activities that are expressing solidarity with the victims of the human-made catastrophe that we are going through,” he said. “We will use prayer for both the victims and oppressors so that they can see that what they are doing is wrong.
“We will also talk about possibilities of joining street protests and any Christians who agree to defy unjust laws.”
Dr Phineas Dube, a Harare-based international leadership trainer, says an organisation like the Christian Alliance is long overdue, adding that, if managed properly, the major strength of the organisation will be that it presents a united religious front to oppose government repression. He says that until now churches have been competing against each other and were divided in confronting the crisis created by the government.
“This Christian Alliance, even if they should fail, are on the right road,” said Dr Dube. “I’m hoping they will succeed because this is the only way they can get government to listen to them by speaking with one voice.”
Dorothy Bhbhe, a women’s rights activist working in Bulawayo, also welcomes the church leaders’ attempt to form a united front. “They will benefit from unity,” she said. “Now that they are uniting the big and small churches so that they work together to help people who are suffering they should be able to make a difference. This Christian Alliance can take the people of Zimbabwe out of this current crisis, end hunger and bring them shelter, education and food.”
However, she is wary the leaders could get caught up in internal power politics and infiltrated by state security agents. Bhebhe says she would also want to see more women being accommodated in the alliance.
Gokova says the Christian Alliance is aware of the magnitude of the challenges that lie ahead but remains confident that it will deliver Zimbabweans from their misery. He acknowledges that many of the issues the alliance will raise will not go down well among politicians but is quick to point out the church can no longer remain silent.
“The nature of our problems is political. We cannot avoid challenging politicians,” he said. “We cannot avoid talking directly to politicians. But when we speak as Christians, we speak the justice and peace of God. Some politicians will have problems with us, but our conviction and motivation are coming from God.”
Sarah Dlodlo is the pseudonym of an IWPR contributor in Zimbabwe.
This article was first published on 21 March 2006 (AR No. 57) by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting (IWPR), London. Posted on Religioscope with permission.
Articles published by the IWPR can be accessed on its website: www.iwpr.net