Zimbabwe: Govt Launches Blitz on Open Air Worshipers

Harare, Zimbabwe - A sea of people dressed in white is typical of a Sunday in Harare, as thousands of people make their way to mainly open air worship areas dotted around the capital.

Apostolic sects, which seem to be growing in popularity, usually prefer to congregate in the open, under trees, near big rocks, on hills, literally anywhere where they can find space.

The sizes of these churches vary with some having hundreds, while others are made up of maybe just a single household.

But this picturesque scene could just be about to change, with the government launching an unprecedented swoop on these churches, which might see some being closed.

Concerns have been raised that these churches are a cover for illegal activities, while foreigners also have established many worship centres without prior registration.

The Registrar General has raised concern over the matter and together with the police, the Environmental Management Authority (EMA) and the Apostolic Christian Council of Zimbabwe (ACCZ), will next week launch an unprecedented blitz and registration drive on various sects.

"Some foreign church leaders are marrying locals so they can have permits to live here, we have to act on these marriages of convenience," an official from the Registrar General's office said.

The official added that the Registrar General's office was concerned at the rate at which new churches were sprouting up and this warranted the registration exercise that is scheduled to begin next week.

"The department therefore welcomes the move by the ACCZ to try and rein in on these new churches, as sometimes their doctrines and leadership seem suspicious," he said.

On its part EMA is concerned with what it describes as the mushrooming of new churches without adequate sanitary facilities.

"These have no due care about the environment, sanitary facilities, running water and other health matters, thereby worshippers and children are particularly at risk," the environment watchdog said recently.

An EMA official, Maxwell Maturure, gave examples of, a prominent Bulawayo prophet, Thabiso Ngwenya who had many confrontations with the City Fathers and the environment authority.

Ngwenya's supporters throw water filled bottles onto rocks, in a healing exercise known as 'bombing.'

"We had to intervene as it was a complicated issue," Maturure said. "The government and the local authority had by laws but these were not being adhered to."

With the swoop in Harare, codenamed Operation Restore Sanity, the authorities say they also want to clamp down on the high numbers of rape and indecent assaults, which are synonymous with the apostolic churches.

"We are worried at cases of indecent association, rape, statutory rape and forced marriages of minors," Jonas Ndanga of the ACCZ said.

He said his organisation was also worried at the increasing family disputes that emanated as a result of "false prophetic words of witchcraft, goblins" and other unorthodox ways of worship.

ACCZ said they were further worried that "unsuspecting converts are being baptised in unhygienic water polluted with sewer and other toxins, putting followers at risk of contracting water borne diseases."

The blitz is set to be launched in Mbare next week and will spread to Glen View, Highlands and Belvedere before spreading to the rest of the capital.

During the raid churches will be asked to fill out a questionnaire, which will ask when they were formed, whether they have sanitary facilities and what relationship they have with the State.

A similar exercise was launched in Bulawayo, but failed after serious opposition from various apostolic sects and politicians.