Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Churches Engaged in Soul Searching over Role in Zimbabwe's Crisis ; Some Leaders Fear the Church Will Become Irrelevant If It Doesn't Do More to Speak out against the Government

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Churches Engaged in Soul Searching over Role in Zimbabwe's Crisis ; Some Leaders Fear the Church Will Become Irrelevant If It Doesn't Do More to Speak out against the Government

Article excerpt

On a recent weekday evening, a dozen young members of the Bulawayo Baptist church met in their congregation's spacious hall for a jam session and prayer group. Seated on wooden benches amid scattered bibles, the young musicians animatedly discuss the topic of the day: praise and worship and the difference between them.

This is a church that would prefer to stay focused on its parishoners' spiritual - not political - education. But here in Zimbabwe, events on earth are not so easily ignored. President Robert Mugabe has tightened his grip on the country since winning reelection nearly a year ago. Zimbabwe is experiencing severe food shortages, skyrocketing unemployment, and heavy-handed repression of anyone who dares oppose the government.

Now spiritual leaders here are doing some soul searching about what their role in the crisis should be.

"God has heard the suffering of the people of Zimbabwe," says the Rev. Ray Motsi, the fiery pastor of this 3,000-strong congregation. "He has heard the cries of the people, not just in Israel, but also in Zimbabwe.... I don't believe the church should be involved in politics, but if politics means bread and butter issues, then I'll talk about it."

The role of African churches during crises has been an uneven one. The continent is full of haunting memories of times the church has failed to speak out for the poor and powerless - and even contributed to the turmoil. Some religious leaders here hope Zimbabwe won't be added to that list. While a few parishes have railed against Mr. Mugabe and his ruling party - even in the face of threats and violence - others have remained silent or even sided with the government.

"By and large, the church in Zimbabwe is fearful, docile, and selfish," says the small, stocky Mr. Motsi, whose manner bounces between intensity and lighthearted teasing. "The majority don't want to get involved because they are afraid they will be victimized by the government."

One of those who has been victimized is Archbishop Pius Ncube, head of the Bulawayo Catholic diocese. He is a tireless campaigner against the violence of Mugabe's regime. For his efforts, he has been vilified in the government press. These days he often sleeps in safe houses, but worries more about the safety of his elderly mother, against whom he says multiple threats have been made.

"It all depends on one man - Robert Mugabe," he says with conviction. "He is the source of all our suffering."

Fr. Ncube, Motsi, and several other ministers here have united to form Christians for Peace and Justice, a group of about 10 religious leaders and 100 members formed in response to the current crisis. But too few, they say, have joined the cause.

Indeed, not all churches here agree that the government is responsible for Zimbabwe's current plight, or that it is the responsibility of men of God to speak out against it. …

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