Zimbabwe's turbulent priests

Harare, Zimbabwe - The imposing Anglican Cathedral of St Mary and All Saints in central Harare was almost deserted on Sunday following months of violent clashes and legal wrangles between rival factions.

Zimbabwe's deep political divide has spilled over into the religious arena.

The pews which would normally play host to 1,000 worshippers held just 42 people on Pentecost Sunday, giving a melancholy feel to the huge building.

Zimbabwe's Anglican women normally look resplendent in their white and blue uniforms, singing joyous praise to the Lord.

But none of Sunday's worshippers were wearing any uniforms.

Even the singing, which was accompanied by traditional drums was dull and could have been mistaken for funeral dirges.

Outside the church, three armed policemen sat on a park bench directly opposite the entrance to the cathedral.

They have become a permanent feature at Sunday services since Zimbabwe's Anglican Communion split last year, resulting in violent clashes between worshippers loyal to Bishop Nolbert Kunonga and his rival Bishop Sebastian Bakare.

Bishop Kunonga is a staunch supporter of President Robert Mugabe and once described Zimbabwe's leader as a "prophet of God".

He was dismissed by the church's regional leaders last year and says he is being persecuted by the global church leadership for his opposition to the ordination of gay priests.

But Zimbabwe's opposition says the government installed him to stop the church criticising human rights abuses.


Church regular Locadia Mutandiro says she is extremely disappointed by what is happening at the cathedral.

"The house of God has been turned into a boxing-ring by politicians," she said.

"The last time I attended service in March, we were only a few church-goers, as many prefer to go elsewhere to avoid being victimised by state security for supporting the Bishop Bakare group."

The Church of the Province of Central Africa (CPCA) sacked Bishop Kunonga last November after he resisted pressure from the Anglican leadership to criticise Zimbabwe's government.

But he refused to step down and has been accused of using young thugs allied to Mr Mugabe's ruling Zanu-PF party to attack the rival faction.

The police have been accused of taking sides in the dispute, by beating up worshippers, including women taking the Holy Communion.

'Borrowed time'

Last month, the Anglican church leadership strongly criticised the situation in Zimbabwe following the disputed March elections and how the local church had been affected.

Archbishop of York John Sentamu said President Robert Mugabe was "living on borrowed time".

He famously cut up his dog collar live on television and vowed not to wear it until Mr Mugabe left office.

Such statements will not have gone down well with Bishop Kunonga.

He says he is being persecuted by the global church leadership for his "principled stance on homosexuality in the church".

President Mugabe is also virulently opposed to gay rights.

Bishop Kunonga says western groups in favour of ordaining gay priests are funding his rivals to gain support for their position in Africa, where many church leaders take a traditional view.

Moreblessing Mutare, a young father of two who belongs to the Bishop Kunonga faction, was very abusive when asked to comment on what was going on at the church.

"You journalists are fuelling this whole thing. I won't speak to you again. Our Bishop [Kunonga] is right on the issue of homosexuals, but you want to make it as if he has done something wrong. If you read the Bible, it condemns homosexuality. That is our position," he said.

Running battles

Following the split, the High Court ruled that the two factions should share the church's property and hold Sunday services at different times.

The mood at the church varies according to which groups holds the service, says Musafare Chiraga, who attends service every week.

He said the attendance for Bishop Kunonga is boosted by members of the state-run National Youth Service, known by some as the "green bombers" and accused of being a pro-Mugabe militia.

"The happy and peaceful mood has disappeared as people are apprehensive about what can happen any time since the clashes began," Mr Chiraga said.

The dispute spilled over into violence just after Christmas last year.

Rival groups fought running battles at the St Andrews parish in Harare's Glen View district.

Then in February, the Deputy Sheriff had to use a bolt-cutter to break in to the cathedral after followers of Bishop Kunonga defied the court order and barred their rivals from using it to conduct their service.

Police were summoned and they took leaders of the two camps to the police station to try to find an amicable solution.

But to no avail and the legal wrangles have now been taken to the Supreme Court.

Church regulars say the majority of the congregation backs Bishop Bakare, while Bishop Kunonga enjoys the support of the state.

As Zimbabwe awaits the date of a run-off in the presidential election, some say this mirrors the situation countrywide.

(The contributor's name has been changed for his own safety.)