Zimbabwe's Anglican church divided over politics

HARARE, Zimbabwe — Political tension has so deeply penetrated life in this southern African country that when Tendai Mahachi kneels down to receive communion he is making a partisan statement.

"I do not come here to indicate that I am hostile to President Robert Mugabe,’’ said the regular of St. Mary’s and All Saints Anglican Cathedral in downtown Harare, "but everything you do in Zimbabwe places you on one side or other of the political divide.’’

Along with about 60 people, Mahachi, a 40-year-old businessman, was attending a noon Sunday service in the car park of the capital’s cathedral. The altar was a fold-up table and the officiating priests fetched their vestments from the trunks of their cars, before producing chalices and wafers from a picnic basket. The oak doors of the 76-year-old stone cathedral remained locked, as they have been, intermittently, for nearly two years — ever since Bishop Nolbert Kunonga was sacked by the Anglican Church of the Province of Central Africa.

Acrimony is bitter between Kunonga and his replacement, Bishop Chad Gandiya. Over Christmas, police acting for Kunonga threatened residents in townships near the capital, telling them they would be beaten if they attended churches loyal to Gandiya.

The threats prompted the Anglican Church’s senior leaders to condemn the Zimbabwean authorities for siding with the excommunicated bishop. In a statement in December, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, Rowan Williams and John Sentamu, said: "The unprovoked intimidation of worshippers by the police is indicative of the continued and persistent oppression by state instruments of those perceived to be in the opposition."

Kunonga is a fervent supporter of Mugabe and says those opposed to him are close to the Movement for Democratic Change. In the wake of years of political strife and an election in 2008 which was marred by government-initiated violence, the MDC in February 2009 entered an "inclusive government’’ with Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African Union–Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF). But large parts of the power-sharing government still struggle to get off the ground, and many charge that it is a result of obstructionism from Zanu-PF.

Kunonga was sacked in February 2008 by the Anglican Church of the Province of Central Africa after he claimed that the Anglican church had not taken a strong enough stand against Anglican moves to ordain homosexuals. Kunonga announced that he would create his own province and gained support from Manicaland, in eastern Zimbabwe, and from several parishes around Harare.

Kunonga has become a controversial and polarizing figure for his outspoken support of Mugabe and his antagonistic attacks against the MDC. Also local press have reported that Kunonga has received a choice farm outside Harare from Mugabe's seizures of white-owned farms.

For a time after being dismissed by the Anglican church, Kunonga locked himself in Harare’s cathedral. Now, every Sunday, he holds services there at 7.30 a.m. and 9 a.m., which are attended by a smattering of regulars. For the rest of the time, the cathedral, in the center of downtown Harare, remains padlocked to prevent rival Anglicans from trying to worship in the church.

Kunonga's critics say he is simply power-hungry and is using the homosexuality issue as an excuse to ingratiate himself with Mugabe. The Zimbabwean president, who is a Roman Catholic, is known for his virulent anti-homosexual views.

Car-park attendant Shadreck Nyatsuro attends Kunongo’s services. "He has always been good to me. I have to stay neutral. I went to Bishop Kunonga’s service at 7.30 a.m. this morning so I don’t need to attend this one, too,’’ said Nyatsuro, 72, as he maintained a studied distance from those taking Bishop Gandiya's communion by the car park.

"We never know, from one Sunday to the next, whether we are going to gain access,’’ said Father Farai Mutamiri, officiating at Bishop Gandiya’s service. Members of his congregation were tear-gassed last year by riot police loyal to Kunonga who burst into the cathedral during the service. "That is when we took the issue to court,’’ said Reverend Phineas Fundira.

The most recent court hearing, which ran into the evening of Saturday, Dec. 19, ruled that services led by Bishop Gandiya’s clergy should not be disrupted. But a few hours later police arrested church wardens and officials at several churches around Harare.

"The police are constantly in contempt of court,’’ said Fundira. "We increasingly do not know what to do. We have some Anglicans in the Zanu-PF Politburo so we are now going to turn to them for support.’’

The locked-out Anglicans believe Kunonga’s position is hardening and see no let-up in the support he is receiving from elements of the police. Father Mutamiri said the congregation had remained united and that most regulars supported Bishop Gandiya. "We are holding house services, and sticking together. Our biggest problem is the cost of going to court, and we could do with support from other Anglicans.’’

But he did not call for further intervention from the archbishops of Canterbury and York.

"We are accused of being pro-homosexual and pro-MDC, which we are not. We are just a peace-loving congregation who wish to be able to carry on worshipping together.

"We would like the Church of the Province of Central Africa to solve this issue which is, after all, centered on their former employee, Kunonga," said Mutamiri. "But if the archbishop of Canterbury gets involved that could strengthen the perception that our agenda is for regime-change in Zimbabwe, which it is not.’’