The pews are often virtually empty on Sunday mornings at Harare’s St Mary’s and All Saints Anglican cathedrals, but this is Bishop Nolbert Kunonga’s “throne” and he is prepared to defend it with violence.
After a service attended by a few followers last Sunday, Kunonga, the priest who has divided the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe and set disciples on rival clergymen, stood in front of his pulpit and raved against gays and Rowan Williams, the visiting archbishop of Canterbury. “This is my throne,” he declared. “I am in charge. He [Williams] cannot come here.”
Kunonga regards the cathedral as a prized asset among hundreds of church properties he has taken over in a fight that has demonstrated the impunity enjoyed by President Robert Mugabe’s allies.
Excommunicated in 2007, Kunonga is fighting for control of the Anglican Church, seizing assets and barring worshippers from churches. A dossier on the dispute presented to Mugabe this week claimed that at least one parishioner, Jessica Mandeya, might have been killed in attacks by Kunonga’s followers.
Also last Sunday, 15 000 members of the rival faction led by Bishop Chad Gandiya were attending a mass held by Williams in a sports arena. Kunonga rustled up a crowd of women, who marched outside the cathedral where he was preaching to denounce Williams. One placard read: “Homosexuals must die.”
It is Kunonga’s central claim: the church is at risk of being overrun by homosexuals and he alone stands in its defence.
“Williams is the reason why the Anglican Church all over the world is divided. He has not taken a position on homosexuality,” he has said.
But his critics see this as a cover for his campaign for power. Parishioners have left him, to worship in parks and rented halls, but he has insisted: “It is not about who has the majority or the minority. It is about who is right.”
Finding an ally
Kunonga was elected bishop in 2001, beating Tim Neill, a rabidly anti-Mugabe priest. At a time when the church — including Mugabe’s own Catholic Church — was growing increasingly critical of his rule, Mugabe found an ally in Kunonga among the hostile clergy.
At Mugabe’s inauguration in 2002 Kunonga described his victory, which came after a violent campaign, as “God’s will”. He has also described Mugabe as “a prophet of God who was sent to deliver the people of Zimbabwe from bondage”.
A church tribunal accused Kunonga of plotting the murder of rival priests and misusing church funds, but the trial was abandoned after a judge hearing the case stepped down.
In 2007 he formed a splinter church, claiming it was in protest at the Anglican Church’s tolerance for homosexuality. He began seizing church assets, at one time moving out of his suburban home to sleep in the cathedral to ensure that his rivals stayed out.
Over recent months Kunonga has grabbed churches, schools, hospitals and orphanages, evicting priests and staff and locking out worshippers.
He has also seized the church’s most sacred shrine, which honours one of Africa’s earliest martyrs, Bernard Mizeki.
On Monday Williams handed Mugabe a dossier giving details of Kunonga’s campaign. It said that police had “disrupted church services and used tear gas and batons to drive people out of church buildings”.
“As a consequence most churches lie empty each Sunday, except where a handful of Dr Kunonga’s priests and their families are able to occupy them,” the dossier stated.
Priests and deacons were arrested without charge and many of the arrests were deliberately made on Fridays to keep priests from church, said the dossier.
“Parishioners are not only denied access to their churches, but increasingly are threatened with punishment if they worship at all, or attempt to carry out their ministry to the community.”
Kunonga’s followers barred Williams from entering churches in Mutare on Monday.
At church hospitals, his loyalists have also been denying health care to members of the rival faction and turning away drugs and equipment donated by aid agencies.
Kunonga denied the dossier’s charges and said he would continue the fight “as long as the archbishop of Canterbury remains homosexual”.
The large crowd attending Williams’s mass contrasted sharply with Kunonga’s small congregation, but he remained defiant.
“Williams’s coming here will not make them get in the church buildings. We are the ones here in the cathedral; they are meeting at the sports centre.
“I am the owner of all this. Gandiya is showing off with a white man and I do not care. This is not the end of Kunonga.”
Zimbabwe defends its record
The troubles that have gripped Zimbabwe’s Anglican Church have further exposed the country’s feeble human rights record, even as it mounted a bold defence during the United Nations Human Rights Council’s universal periodic review this week.
In Geneva, Switzerland, Minister of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Patrick Chinamasa said Western-imposed sanctions — in place since 2003 — contributed to the suffering of Zimbabweans and were “the greatest violation” of human rights.
Zimbabwe’s attorney general, Johannes Tomana, has threatened to take legal action against the European Union over the sanctions.
The debate on Zimbabwe’s human rights coincided with a visit from the global Anglican Church leader, the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams.
A report presented to the UN council by a coalition of 27 civil society organisations from Zimbabwe challenged the government’s glossy report on the human rights situation in the country. Dewa Mavhinga, regional co-ordinator of Crisis in Zimbabwe, said: “We want the world to know the real situation in the country. It is not ready for elections next year. There is still just a lot to be done on the human rights front.”
Effie Ncube, a political analyst, said: “Zanu-PF’s denial of the atrocities and human rights violations of the past 31 years is a demonstration of the severe moral deficiency in the party.”
South Africa demanded an investigation of the killings that occurred during the presidential run-off elections in June 2008. The United States, Australia and Pretoria have all expressed their deep concern over the killings and said those responsible in the army, police and secret service had to be punished.
Zimbabwe’s dark human rights past has hogged the international limelight with several high-profile cases, such as the Gukurahundi massacres during the 1980s, the controversial Murambatsvina clean-up exercise in Harare in 2005, the killings by the military at the Chiadzwa diamond fields in October 2008 and the violent presidential run-off elections in June that same year.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have estimated that nearly 300 Movement for Democratic Change supporters were murdered during the run-off elections by Zanu-PF members.
But a rare triumph of justice has occurred in the past month when a court sentenced Zanu-PF militia base commander Gilbert Mavhenyengwa (55) to 20 years in jail for the rape of the wife of an MDC supporter during those elections. — Ray Ndlovu