‘Don’t forget us,’ said my Zimbabwean host as I left the Anglican Church in a suburb of Harare. Yet the persecution of Anglicans in the diocese of Harare, which is spreading to another Zimbabwean diocese, is being seen and remembered by few Christian communities across the world. My Zimbabwean hosts do not worship in the fine building which was built by the Anglicans themselves – some told me that they even made the bricks with their own hands, freely and willingly giving their labour as a gift to God – but in a colourful marquee in a supporter’s garden. This is not a Zimbabwean fresh expression of church, but like the people of Israel on their journey to the Promised Land, a tent focuses the meeting place with God. The marquee is so packed that some have to worship outside; the joy, energy and silences in the worship are indicators of the depth of commitment to God and each other. But not far beneath the surface is the pain of being exiles, forced from the spiritual home, built to the glory of God, which is rightly theirs.
Like all the congregations in the city and surrounding areas, they have been forced out of their place of worship by the police on the orders of Nolbert Kunonga, former Bishop of Harare and avid supporter of Robert Mugabe. Kunonga was elected bishop in 2001, but his increasingly pro-ZANU-PF political stance alienated many Anglicans until he withdrew himself from the Church in 2007. However, when he did leave, he took the Church’s assets with him, including cars, clergy houses and access to churches. There have been long and costly legal wrangles, but the courts are reluctant to rule that these assets, illegally held by Kunonga who is no longer bishop, do not belong to him. Some court rulings, such as a decision that Churches be used at different times by different groups, are flagrantly ignored by the former bishop who has the power to summon police to support his cause. A small number of priests followed Kunonga and have remained in their vicarages mustering only a handful of people into church on Sundays. Kunonga has described Mugabe as a prophet and, like Mugabe, he was wanting to cut off links with the West and change the Anglican church into a mouthpiece for ZANU-PF. When he failed in this and had been told by the Church of the Province of Central Africa that he was no longer bishop, Kunonga has taken every opportunity to identify the Anglican Church with the Movement for Democratic Change, at one time the opposition party, but now in an uneasy and uncomfortable relationship with ZANU-PF. This has attracted the ire of Mugabe’s ZANU-PF.
This intolerable situation has worsened for Anglicans in Harare where arrest, threats and beatings can be the rewards of Christian commitment. Congregations meet in a variety of locations. As well as in tents, worship may take place under trees, in street squares and in supporters’ gardens. But nowhere is safe. One priest told me of how his congregation of 1,000 was given permission by the authorities to meet close to the church building, but when they did so, twenty-one canisters of tear gas were fired into the gathering as they were worshipping, a group of women were detained for four days and he was also arrested. At the recent Bernard Mizeki Festival, an annual gathering in honour of Zimbabwe’s first martyr which takes place outside Harare, a heavily armed police force prevented the pilgrims, drawn from across the country and beyond, gaining access to the shrine, despite public assurances of safe passage from a government minister. At the last minute, the celebrations took place in a nearby show ground where the largest gathering in recent memory witnessed to the fact that persecution and harassment strengthen the Christian faith.
The Anglican Church’s persecution at the hand of the Zimbabwean government points to disarray within as well as the inexplicable influence of a disillusioned former cleric. What is also inexplicable is the way in which the plight of Zimbabwe’s courageous Anglicans have been ignored by so many. ‘Don’t forget us,’ said my Zimbabwean host.