Churches call for calm as Zimbabwe awaits election results

Bulawayo and Harare, Zimbabwe - With tensions rising, as Zimbabweans await the slow release of results from Saturday's national elections, church leaders are appealing for peace and restraint.

Foremost was the Fellowship of Christian Councils in Southern Africa (FOCCSA), which urged calm from the Zimbabwean electorate, party supporters, political leaders, and security agencies alike.

Of course, the pace at which the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) has released results would test the patience of Job.

By Tuesday morning, the ZEC had only released results for 132 parliamentary seats, giving opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) 68 seats, including six for a breakaway faction. President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF party had 64.

The commission has offered no results in the presidential race.

Raised expectations by the MDC, which declared a landslide victory late Saturday night, and dire warnings by the ZANU-PF machinery of harsh consequences for any civil unrest, have sent warning bells of potential conflict, especially if Mr.Mugabe is declared the victor.

"We therefore appeal to political leaders to pursue the path of peace and to refrain their supporters from violence, during this period and after the elections. We also appeal to the ZEC to speed up the process of election announcement," said a FOCCSA spokesman.

Church leaders' difficult role

Like church leaders in neighboring South Africa during the struggle against apartheid, pastors in Zimbabwe have played a difficult dual role during the 28 years of Mugabe's economically ruinous and sometimes brutal rule.

When Mugabe sent his North Korean-trained 5th Brigade into the Matabeleland to quell a rebellion (killing 20,000 in the early 1980s), pastors such as Roman Catholic Bishop Pius Ncube expressed moral outrage.

As the country has entered an economic death spiral, with 100,000 percent inflation, rising unemployment, and increasing food shortages, pastors have brought a measure of comfort and encouraged resilience.

But unlike in South Africa or even in the American civil rights struggle, where church leaders were unified in a moral cause, the church in Zimbabwe has been much more fractured, with some church leaders favoring the opposition and others favoring the government.

This split voice, and the sullying of top religious voices of opposition – Bishop Ncube was recently demoted after a sex scandal – have meant that Zimbabwe's church leaders can play only a limited role in the current crisis.

"The role of the church is to provide a moral voice for individuals and a voice of hope; but in Zimbabwe, Christians are polarized," says Chris Maroleng, a Zimbabwe expert at the Institute for Security Studies in Tshwane, as Pretoria, South Africa, is now called. "Bishop Kanenge of the Anglican church supports Mugabe. The Catholic Church is much more powerful, but the allegations against [Ncube] have set it back quite a ways.

"The church could have played a major role – it could have a prophetic voice against repression. But due to the lack of a moral foundation, the church has missed out on that."

The flashpoints are numerous. Security chiefs in the country have declared that they will not salute Mr. Tsvangirai in the event that he wins the elections because he does not have military credentials.

Meanwhile, sources in the military said the security chiefs are divided about how to handle the crisis as preliminary results show Tsvangirai leading the race. The sources said the security chiefs met Sunday for more than three hours and Monday for nearly half a day, but failed to map out their strategy in the days ahead.

"This is why the results are taking long to be released," said a senior source in the military. "There is a crisis in the security services at the moment because some are saying the results should be announced as they are while others want them doctored in favor of Mugabe."

Police commissioner general Augustine Chihuri, Zimbabwe Defense Forces commander Constantine Chiwenga, and Prisons Services chief Paradzai Zimondi are said to have vowed not to let results that favor Tsvangirai be released. But commander of the national Air Force, Air Vice Marshal Perence Shiri, and Zimbabwe National Army Commander Phillip Valelio Sibanda are insisting that the results be announced as they are.

At press time, rumors were swirling that advisers may even be negotiating Mugabe's resignation and a transfer of power. Those reports could not be independently verified. (See for the latest.)

Be 'living stones,' says pastor

In the small parish office of a Baptist church in the opposition stronghold of Bulawayo, the Rev. Ray Motsi holds a midmorning Bible study meeting with parishioners. The room is crowded with well-dressed young men and women, all of them professionals who have taken time out from work to study a Bible passage describing Jesus as the "living stone."

"Jesus was a stone rejected by the builders, but chosen by God," says Rev. Motsi. "You also are all chosen for your uniqueness, because of what role God wants you to fulfill. We have all experienced far less than what God has intended."

As the parishioners leave the office, taking their chairs with them out into a hall that is filling up with poor rural Zimbabweans awaiting a meal, Motsi tells a visiting reporter that churches must be engaged in all aspects of society. But they must maintain their political independence.

"The church is not something that [Mugabe] or someone else can play with, or something that can be given away to the politicians," he says. "The politicians need to come to the church, not the church bowing to the politicians."

He actually relishes the challenge of being a pastor in the current economic crisis, he says. "What a wonderful opportunity to live in these times in Zimbabwe, despite these conditions. What an opportunity to demonstrate we are living stones. If you are not a pastor in a time like this, you will never be a pastor."

Yet this "prophetic" voice of outrage does not relieve him of his "day job," to look after the spiritual growth of his flock. "Difficult times force us to grow, and I personally see growth in the manner in which people are revived and encouraged. We are so excited, raring to go."