In today’s Zimbabwe, to speak the truth is to risk beatings, imprisonment, torture or even death. Yet growing numbers of churchmen and women are denouncing the human rights abuses being committed by President Robert Mugabe’s government. Because of the government’s severe restrictions on the media, a Radio Netherlands’ reporter travelled undercover to Zimbabwe and spoke to an archbishop, a priest and a minister.
A group of concerned religious leaders, calling themselves Christians Together for Justice and Peace, regularly organise services where victims of government repression and torture can speak. Watch an excerpt from “Songs in the Night”, filmed in Bulawayo Cathedral in February 2003. (8’36”)
“We’re living under a totalitarian regime,” says Reverend Graham Shaw, a Methodist minister in Zimbabwe’s second biggest city, Bulawayo. “This is a police state.” Human rights organisations concur. The man who led Zimbabwe to independence over two decades ago, Robert Mugabe, and his party, the ZANU-PF, are determined to suppress the Movement for Democratic Change or MDC. In the process, the government is violating the most basic rights of its own citizens.
The crisis began in 1999 with the emergence of the MDC. It was the first serious political opposition to the ruling party in recent years. The government’s initial annoyance turned to antipathy and later to anger. The authorities have made it clear that anyone who does not support them is against them. Human rights groups have documented how MDC supporters are being denied medical treatment and even food aid. Zimbabwe used to be southern Africa’s grain basket. Today, half the population of 11 million depends on foreign food aid.
The criticism of growing numbers of churchmen has not gone unnoticed by the government. “I had one of them sitting here on my sofa, trying to convert me,” says the Catholic archbishop of Bulawayo, Pius Ncube. “I was offered a piece of land. I refused. I said if this land is being acquired in this evil manner – where farmers have been killed, where property is taken overnight, where the facilities that were producing enough food for the country are being destroyed, all for the sake of keeping power – then I reject it.”
Pressure on religious leaders is gradually increasing, even though 80% of Zimbabweans describe themselves as Christian. It’s all part of a careful calculation on the part of the government, believes Reverend Shaw. “When they feel that they are threatened by the outspoken views expressed by individual churchmen, they can and will act decisively. It’s relatively easy for them to pick off one or two individuals.”
The Central Intelligence Organisation or CIO – Zimbabwe’s secret police – regularly monitors church services. Reverend Shaw knows that the CIO even receives reports from some of his own parishioners. “The state operates in a sinister way, not with any open or direct threats, but it certainly gives those who are proclaiming truth and justice cause to pause. We have to think before we make any statements because we know that the state, at the appropriate point, will take further action.”
That doesn’t stop him or Barnabus Nqindi, a Catholic priest, from speaking. “If Mr. Mugabe doesn’t like it, then tough luck,” says Father Nqindi. “I’m first a priest and I am answerable to God. I can be found on the wrong side of Mr. Mugabe. That’s no problem. But not on the wrong side of God.”
Like much of the rest of Zimbabwean society, Christian leaders have been slow to respond to President Mugabe’s increasingly authoritarian rule. “For too long,” says Reverend Shaw, “the churches have tried to close their eyes to the gross human rights abuses and injustices.” It has been difficult for Christians to come up with a common position. “Unfortunately,” says Archbishop Pius, “there are some clergy, even in the Catholic Church, who are siding with the government”.
Does God exist?
The desperation has become so great that many Zimbabweans wonder whether even God has abandoned them. They themselves are partly to blame, says Archbishop Pius. “They put Mugabe on a pedestal and spoiled him.” Reverend Shaw believes it’s up to the church to make Zimbabweans aware that “the real cause of their hunger, homelessness and suffering is a small clique of power-hungry politicians. They are sacrificing the lives of their people for their own political ambitions. We need to give people the assurance that the god of justice and truth will prevail.”
Zimbabwe Victims’ Support Fund
The Methodist Church has set up a trust fund to support those in greatest need, particularly those who have been cut off from the general food distribution because of their support for the opposition. The fund channels contributions from foreign donors via a network of pastors, priests and human rights activists. There is no overhead: all proceeds go directly to the victims.
Zimbabwe Victims’ Support Fund
Clem Frank FCA
36 Backwoods Lane
Lindfield, West Sussex RH16 2EN