(Photo: Reuters/Howard Burditt)
Sixteen churchgoers have been placed under arrest and are currently being detained as the Anglican Church faces continued persecution in Zimbabwe.
As well as the arrests, a number of priests were turned out of the homes in the Diocese of Harare.
The Bishop of Harare, the Rt. Rev. Chad Gandiya has told the Anglican Communion News Service that the arrests were illegal, and that those being detained, including an elderly woman, have been left traumatized.
Bishop Chad, a USPG Regional Manager until 2010, has requested prayers for those being held in prison and for their distressed families. He said: “I am really concerned about this. We shall be running around to try and bail the whole group out today, if the police will listen.”
The source of the persecution is alleged to be coming from an ex-communicated bishop, Dr Norbert Kunonga, a supporter of President Mugabe, who left the Anglican Province of Central Africa (CPCA) in 2007 to try and set up a rival church.
Kunonga has used police and henchmen to seize CPCA church property, and has even used violent tactics to break up and disrupt church services.
USPG Chief Executive Janette O’Neill told the ACNS: “We are deeply concerned at the increased level of threat and harassment being leveled at faithful members and clergy of the Anglican Church – especially by the forces of the state that should be there to protect and serve the people.
“We will support Bishop Chad through prayer, advocacy and practical means as he upholds both human rights and the legal right of the Anglican to minister to its communities. He is their champion and cannot submit to these threats and actions resulting from the illegitimate claims of Mr Kunonga.”
The escalation of attacks on the Anglican Church began last Sunday when Kunonga sent representatives to take possession of two priest’s houses.
Matters escalated on the night of June 1st, when another attempt was made by Kunonga’s men to evict Fr. Julius Zimbudzana from his home. This time, however, members of Fr Julius’s church apprehend the attacker and took him to the local police station.
However, later in the evening, the police came to Fr Julius’s house to arrest 16 people – including priests and three women, one of them Fr Julius’s elderly mother, the ACNS has reported.
President Robert Mugabe, 87, is pushing for re-election this year, and it is believed that the intensified harassment of independent churches, seen as hostile to his government, has come about to crush any potential voices of dissention.
Riot police stormed a Nazarene church in Harare last month to break up a gathering called to pray for peace. In the days following that, local authorities in Lupane arrested a Roman Catholic priest leading a memorial service for civilians massacred in the early years of Mugabe’s decades in power.
Mugabe, a Roman Catholic, recently denounced black bishops in established churches as pawns of whites and the West. He singled out for special opprobrium Catholic bishops who have “a nauseating habit of unnecessarily attacking his person,” the state-controlled Herald newspaper reported.
However, it is the Anglican Church, one of the country’s major denominations, that has faced the most sustained pressure over recent weeks. Kunonga has escalated a drive to control thousands of Anglican churches, schools and properties across Zimbabwe.
Bishop Gandiya has said he is baffled by the support for Kunonga from state security services since the church that Bishop Gandiya leads is apolitical. Bishop Gandiya told the ACNS: “It’s not Kunonga we find at the church gates, it’s the police. It’s not Kunonga who drives us out, who throws tear gas at us, it’s the police. When we ask them why, they say they’re following orders.”
Anglican leaders in Zimbabwe refusing to submit to Kunonga’s authority say they have been subjected to death threats, spied on by state agents and blocked from worshiping in their churches or burying the dead in Anglican cemeteries.
Bishop of Masvingo Godfrey Tawonezvi described a visit from two men to the ACNS, who told him that Kunonga had instructed them to “eliminate” the five bishops who stood in the way of his controlling the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe. “They had all our phone numbers, our home addresses,” Tawonezvi explained.
Bishop of Manicaland Julius Makoni, another of the five, said in an interview, “We’re all being followed.”
Bishop Chad has made a plea for worldwide Christians to pray for the persecuted in Zimbabwe. He requested: “Please pray for our registrars as they try to sort out their bail. Pray for those arrested. Pray especially for the families of all who were arrested last night. They are greatly traumatized by all this. I am told by some of my priests about their children who are affected and are worried about their fathers. Please continue to pray for us as a diocese.’