Pro-Mugabe bishop appears in church court

Harare, Zimbabwe - An Anglican bishop who is a strong supporter of autocratic President Robert Mugabe was brought before an ecclesiastical court investigating charges ranging from inciting murder to besmirching the church.

On Tuesday, Jeremy Lewis, acting as prosecutor, postponed pursuing the most serious incitement to murder charge against Harare Bishop Nolbert Kunonga. The 55-year-old clergyman arrived wearing a jeweled cross over his dark suit and crimson shirt at the hearing held in a golf clubhouse across the road from one of Mugabe's official residences.

Kunonga has not yet been asked to admit or deny the charges, for which he could be expelled from the church, defrocked or merely reprimanded. If convicted, he can appeal within the hierarchy of the 200-million member global Anglican family of churches.

The case is the culmination of a long series of disputes between Kunonga and parishioners and other members of the clergy, who brought the charges.

The local Anglican church has refused to provide funding for the prosecution, which is being financed by international donations.

Other charges allege Kunonga intimidated and improperly fired priests, ignored church law, commandeered bank accounts and foreign exchange, and "brought the diocese into contempt."

He also was accused of ordering the removal of cathedral memorials to Zimbabweans killed in the first and second world wars as well as pioneers of former white-ruled Rhodesia and to victims of the 1972-1980 independence war.

Archbishop Bernard Malanga, head of the Church of the Province of Central Africa, which has authority over Zimbabwe, appointed Malawian Supreme Court Judge James Kalaile to hear the case with Zambian bishops Leonard Mwenda and Albert Chama assisting. Kalaile is a prominent lay member of the Anglican church in Malawi.

James Matizha, defending council, won an adjournment until Thursday, claiming charges had been changed at the last minute. Prosecutor Lewis said Kunonga was apprised of the charges two years ago.

London testimony banned

Plans for the key witness to the incitement to murder charge, former Zimbabwean priest James Mukunga, to give evidence via a closed circuit video link from a secret location in London were disallowed under local rules of evidence. Lewis told The Associated Press that Mukunga feared for his life if he returned to Zimbabwe but might be prepared to testify in neighboring Malawi.

The incitement to murder charge may be heard later in Malawi.

Kunonga was accused of inciting members of Mugabe's feared Central Intelligence Organization and "war veterans" militia to murder 10 of his critics in the local Anglican hierarchy.

Mukunga allegedly received letters from Kunonga in 2003 with instructions to pass them on to the intelligence organization and war veterans, urging them to "meet" the bishop's critics. Refusing to obey, Mukunga and his wife were shortly afterward abducted and beaten by unknown assailants. They then fled to Britain.

The charge also alleged Kunonga aimed to "destabilize" Mugabe's opponents in the 2002 presidential election campaign. Details were not revealed.

Kunonga, a former African liberation theology professor in the United States, was elected bishop in 2001 amid accusations he used his influence with the ruling party to secure the post. He was also accused of firing priests who opposed his nomination.

He has been notorious since for sermons supporting Mugabe and denouncing some black priests as "Uncle Toms" and puppets of whites and human rights campaigns as covers for Western imperialism. He has said whites should have no say in running the country. Since he took office, all 25 white priests have quit his diocese.

Kunonga has gone to civil courts in a long-running dispute with parishioners who accused him of bringing politics into church. In 2002, he won a court order banning 19 church wardens, officials and choir members from services and other church activities after they disrupted his sermons to protest their political content and praise of Mugabe and his regime.

Kunonga is on a U.S. blacklist of prominent Mugabe regime supporters banned from travel to the United States or operating bank accounts there.

He has two farms, one allocated under Mugabe's campaign to seize thousands of white-owned commercial farms for redistribution to black Zimbabweans.

The so-called fast-track land reform, coupled with years of drought, has crippled Zimbabwe's agriculture-based economy. Inflation and unemployment have soared and an estimated 4 million people are in need of food aid in a country that was once the region's breadbasket.

World governments, human rights groups and opponents at home have accused Mugabe's regime of rigging elections, repressing opponents and abusing human rights on a wide scale.

Kunonga's strong support for Mugabe contrasts with the outspoken denunciations of Roman Catholic Archbishop Pius Ncube of Bulawayo who has urged a "peaceful uprising" against the government.