ZIMBABWE: People flock to church as inflation tops 1,000 percent

Harare, Zimbabwe - Each Sunday morning in the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, churches across the city are full of swaying, clapping congregations: US-style evangelism is booming, complete with charismatic preachers, live bands, and the faithful falling to the floor and speaking in tongues.

With the economy in its sixth year of recession and inflation climbing beyond 1,000 percent, religion has become a refuge for many Zimbabweans, bewildered by their ever-deepening impoverishment in what was once a thriving country.

Even top-ranking politicians in the ruling ZANU-PF, veterans of Zimbabwe's liberation war and former Socialists, have turned to God, perhaps gaining new respect as men and women of the cloth.

Vice-President Joseph Msika was recently ordained as a lay pastor in the Anglican church; second Vice-President Joyce Mujuru was promoted to captain in the Salvation Army; two cabinet ministers have applied to train as priests.

Even Emmerson Mnangagwa, the powerful former intelligence chief backed by many to succeed President Robert Mugabe despite his repeated poor showing at the ballot box, has announced he was 'born again'.

"I think their consciences are troubling them. They have a lot of tension and stress because they have no idea which way the country should be driven," suggested Prof Gordon Chavunduka, a sociologist and labour consultant.

It is difficult to escape Zimbabwe's new religious revival. The two songs topping the current music chart are gospel tunes; evangelical preachers are on TV daily; political rallies, and even military parades, are now enlivened with songs of praise.

Sometimes more down-to-earth material needs - and the hope of divine help to ease the difficulties of living in present-day Zimbabwe - seem to be at the heart of this spiritual awakening.

"The number of new church members that we are getting is amazing. The majority of our members are women and the youth; their reasons for joining are varied, but they all have expectations, like being healed of illnesses, finding jobs, and other personal expectations like finding a potential life partner," said Paul Mnyaka, an elder at New Ministries, a Pentecostal church in Harare.

Churches have not been slow to recognise the needs of their congregations. "Attend the crusade and learn how to survive in a high inflationary environment," read one flyer advertising a revival meeting in the Midlands city of Gweru.

Another Pentecostal church places weekly newspaper adverts to attract new members. "I was a prostitute but I have now repented. I have now been blessed with a husband, children and a good job," is the supposed testimony of one young woman.

With the extended family system buckling under the pressure of the economic crisis, churches have become sanctuaries, said Chavunduka.

But the Rev Aspher Madziyire, president of the Apostolic Faith Mission in Zimbabwe, one of the fastest growing churches, denies a link between material needs and new-found faith.

"In addition to the more than 2.5 million members that we have in Zimbabwe, we have opened so many branches in countries like the United Kingdom, the USA, Australia and New Zealand. If it is a question of economic hardship, why would people in countries with such powerful currencies flock to church? They go to church because they realise that there is a vacuum in their lives, which they need to fill with God," he told IRIN.

"It is written in the Bible that towards the end of the world, God would pour his Holy Spirit on his people, and even those people that you would not expect to repent have done so," Madziyire said.