More steel in the men of God:
Despite police threats the Church goes ahead with Commemoration
Sokwanele Report: 20 May 2006
Church leaders in Zimbabwe's second city, Bulawayo, achieved a remarkable victory today in keeping to their original plan to stage a peaceful protest march and hold public prayers, despite the most severe intimidation from Mugabe's security forces. Many similar events planned by churches and civic groups in other parts of the country to commemorate the anniversary of the regime's infamous Operation Murambatsvina were either called off or postponed in the face of massive police intimidation. But the steely resolve of the pastors leading an informal group called Churches in Bulawayo, and the courage of several hundred church members who turned out in support enabled the Bulawayo protest to go ahead notwithstanding.
On a bright Saturday morning as the streets of Bulawayo's oldest township, Makokoba, were just coming to life, a small group of protesters started to gather at St Patrick's Church. Within an hour a crowd of between two and three hundred had assembled. After a full briefing from one of the pastors the procession set off towards the city. Those in the procession were in high spirits. They were obviously not cowed by the presence of many uniformed police in and around the church grounds and along the route they walked - to say nothing of the dictator's omnipresent secret police, the Central Intelligence Organization or CIO.
This event was but one of the several organized across the country by the Zimbabwe Christian Alliance, an informal ecumenical alliance seeking a united Christian response to the current crisis. The objective - shared by many civic groups including Crisis in Zimbabwe - was to focus attention on the plight of victims of ZANU PF's purge of the poor, one year on from the nationwide campaign of destruction which saw hundreds of thousands rendered homeless and destitute. The United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan called it "a catastrophic injustice to as many as 700,000 of Zimbabwe's poorest citizens".
The organizers of most of the other commemorative events planned for this weekend eventually succumbed to police pressure to call them off. Not so the pastors who lead Churches in Bulawayo. When the police whom they had consulted on a courtesy basis, withdrew their original permission and purported to ban the procession and prayers the pastors responded with a strong public statement. They expressed their serious concern at the "about turn" which they said they viewed as "an infringement of our freedom of worship".
The statement continued: "If police are to ban church services, which are exempt under the Public Order and Security Act, such a development will have serious implications on the Church's right to carry out its God given mandate. Such action serves to clearly demonstrate the desperate position of the regime."
The pastors complained of the repeated interrogation of individual clerics and the intimidating tactics employed when they were all subjected to a two hour harangue by thirty senior security officers who were members of Mugabe's Joint Operations Command, comprising police, army and CIO. Two of their number, Pastors Lucky Moyo and Promise Maneda, were arrested by the police on Tuesday and released later on the same day.
The greater the credit of the Bulawayo church leaders who persevered despite the unlawful but nonetheless frightening threats made by the police. Clearly they believed in the justice of their cause - their divine mandate to be a voice for the voiceless poor. But apart from this important dimension of their contest with Mugabe's security apparatus, they believed that the law (such as it is) was also on their side. The draconian Public Order and Security Act (POSA) to which they made reference in their public statement provides the police with wide-ranging powers to control or ban public gatherings of three or more persons. Gatherings for "bona fide religious purposes" however are exempted from the controls. The pastors were strongly of the view that their procession and public prayers were not subject to police control. When the police purported to ban these events under POSA therefore they brought an urgent application to the High Court to have the police action declared unlawful. And a High Court judge sitting late into Friday evening, within hours of the proposed gathering, pronounced in the pastors' favour. Their confidence in their legal right was duly vindicated.
An interesting question remains to which we cannot know the answer; how different would today's events have been had the High Court judge ruled against the pastors ? The police would then undoubtedly have done everything in their power to prevent the procession from taking place. And would the pastors still have walked, in obedience to their "higher calling"? And would a few hundred church members have walked behind them? Would we have witnessed a direct confrontation between Church and State on the streets of Bulawayo? It is interesting to speculate, and our entire reporter can add is that from his contacts with the pastors he understands they had every intention of walking, with a favourable verdict from the Court or without. Their prolonged exposure to the appalling suffering of the victims of Mugabe's tyranny has put a new steel into these men of God.
The Christian protestors walked from St Patrick's Church into the city. It was an orderly and peaceful procession as the organizers had been at pains to ensure. From "Nkosi Sikeleli Africa" the procession moved on to a number of Christian songs, which quickly gained the friendly attention of passers-by. Police details provided an ironic escort, ostensibly to protect the walkers from the traffic.
When the procession reached its destination at the Brethren in Christ Church in the city those taking part settled down outside to listen to speeches, song and even a poem in commemoration of Operation Murambatsvina. The banners proclaimed "Churches in Bulawayo: we still remember", and "Standing in solidarity with the poor". A number of texts were also displayed focusing on the Biblical injunctions to defend the rights of the poor.
Fr Danisa Khumalo, a Roman Catholic priest said "we shall never forget the smoke that rose from Killarney" (one of the informal settlements razed to the ground by Mugabe's armed security units); "we shall never forget how the churches opened their doors and welcomed the homeless" …"we shall never forget the so-called transit camp" …"we shall never forget the displaced people … are we not all victims?" … "And is Zimbabwe a better place because of the so-called clean-up operation?"
Pastor Albert Chatindo reeled off a long list of statistics of internally displaced persons who have been forcibly removed to a range of remote rural destinations where they have no roots, no school or health facilities and are now almost totally dependent on food and other hand-outs from the Church. Reference was made to those who have been moved several times - one family seven times - and the resulting trauma, stress and depression.
In answer to the question whether one single displaced family from the records of Churches in Bulawayo had received any state assistance under the regime's much-vaunted re-build programme "Hlalani Kuhle", Baptist Pastor Ray Motsi answered emphatically, "No, not a single one."
The crowd also heard from some of the victims themselves of the Mugabe regime's crime against humanity. Those telling their horrific stories were hidden from view, an elementary precaution to protect their identity and save them from possible retribution from the security forces. Prayers were offered up on behalf of these victims, the homeless, the sick, children whose education has been cut short, the bereaved, and those who have given up all hope.
A message of solidarity was read out from Archbishop Pius Ncube who would undoubtedly have been in the procession himself had not a prior engagement taken him from the city, and from the British-based TEAR fund which is in a partnership agreement with local churches, providing support for their relief work among the displaced.
For many of the unfortunate victims of Operation Murambatsvina and hundreds of internally displaced persons the Church has become their only refuge and security in a turbulent time of deep crisis. They are grateful, and we as a nation should be profoundly grateful that the Church is there for them. That the Church is taking up its divine mandate, not only to care for the victims of the most gross human rights abuses but also to challenge and confront the arrogant tyranny responsible, is a cause for general rejoicing.