Zimbabwe Church Facing 'Communist-Style' Persecution, Says Bishop

Members of an Anglican church in Zimbabwe's capital Harare are facing persecution reminiscent to that of Christian churches under communist rule, said the bishop of the diocese of Harare.

According to reports, armed police blocked congregants from entering their cathedral in central Harare on May 4. Ecumenical News International reported Tuesday that congregants were trying to hold a church service that would also have included a baptism ceremony when they were forced to cancel the service.

"We wanted to hold our church service as usual in the shed, but we were not allowed even to use that," one parishioner recalled.

Police spokesperson Wayne Bvudzijena confirmed the deployment of police at the Harare cathedral, saying they were sent to prevent clashes between Bishop Sebastian Bakare of the Diocese of Harare and the supporters of former Anglican Bishop Nolbert Kunonga, a renowned supporter of Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe.

Some reports say that the congregants were able to use the church after supporters of Kunonga had finished their service.

Zimbabwe's high court on May 2 had ordered the two Anglican groups to share church property but Kunonga appealed against the ruling in the Supreme Court, claiming his group's right to the property.

Bishop Bakare said the group of armed police came to the cathedral after Kunonga filed the claim regarding the church property in the Supreme Court.

Kunonga, who was stripped of his license as a priest last year, withdrew his diocese from the Anglican Province of Central Africa over what he considers the diocese's failure to condemn the ordination of homosexual bishops.

"The events of the past weekend have led me to believe that there is a deliberate attempt to persecute Anglican Christians in this diocese," said Bishop Bakare in a statement.

The church property incident on Sunday came a week after riot police dispersed a gathering of about 3,200 members of the Mothers' Union taking place in a southern suburb of Harare.

Reportedly a truckload of police arrived as Ruth Bakare, the wife of Bishop Sebastian Bakare, was speaking to the women. Bakare continued to speak until a second truckload came.

"At least 3,200 members of the Mothers' Union had gathered at St. Michael's in Mbare to commemorate Mary's Day and they were chased away by riot police under so-called directives from above," the Bakare stated. "As a bishop of the diocese I was reminded of Christian churches who were persecuted in communist countries before the fall of the Iron Curtain."

The church dispute is also taking place amid the country's election clashes which have persisted over the past several weeks. Though the Electoral Commission finally announced last Friday that President Robert Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe with an iron fist for 28 years, received fewer votes than opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, it claimed that Tsvangirai did not receive the needed majority support to be declared the victor and that a runoff is necessary.

It is unclear when the runoff will be held, but under the country's constitution it cannot be held sooner than 21 days from the announcement of the results.