A Sinister Turn in Zimbabwe

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Joao Silva/The New York Times/Redux
Morgan Tsvangirai speaking to immigrants from Zimbabwe who had been attacked by South Africans, Reiger Park, South Africa, May 2008

In late August, at the height of Zimbabwe’s cool, dry season, I drove north from Harare to the mining town of Bindura, in the province of Mashonaland Central. Once a stronghold of the ruling party of Robert Mugabe, the town had voted decisively for the opposition in Zimbabwe’s violent 2008 election. Now, a campaign of intimidation was underway ahead of the next election, and a local Anglican priest, Samuel Sifelani, had invited me to observe what was happening. A towering, friendly man in his early thirties, Father Sifelani met me at a gas station in the dilapidated town center, and I followed him to his parish, St. Andrew’s Anglican Church.

It was a Sunday morning, but the building stood padlocked and deserted. “We haven’t been able to use it since July 2010,” Sifelani told me. We continued to the nearby campus of a German-run high school. Here, three hundred worshipers were crammed inside a concrete shed with a corrugated tin roof—a metalwork shop that had been converted for the day into a church. Work tables with mounted lathes had been pushed into corners; the priest stood at a makeshift altar, which was draped in white linen held down by two heavy candleholders with blazing candles. A choir sang hymns in the Shona language. The congregation had actually grown, Sifelani told me, since relocating to this modest structure. “People realize that the building doesn’t make the church,” he said, before launching into his Sunday sermon.

Sifelani and his congregation had been forced into this shed, he told me, because of the intervention of a staunch Mugabe ally named Nolbert Kunonga. Back in 2007, Kunonga, then the Anglican bishop of Harare, put out a position paper in which he accused many Anglican priests in Zimbabwe of supporting the gay rights movement—Mugabe has repeatedly expressed his contempt for homosexuality—and announced that he was withdrawing the bishopric from the Anglican Church. “His views became radical,” Sifelani told me. “He aligned himself with Mugabe, and he claimed to be a [liberation] war vet, though we know he is not.”

The Anglican Church excommunicated him, but Kunonga ignored the order. Instead, backed by the police, the courts, and a private militia made up of young ruling-party members, the rogue bishop launched a campaign of intimidation and harassment against anyone suspected of supporting the opposition. Priests who refuse to surrender their parishes to Kunonga’s appointees have been arrested and beaten. More than two hundred Anglican churches, along with schools, orphanages, and shrines, have been taken over by Kunonga’s proxies or been shut down. Police officers acting at his behest have broken up prayer groups and pilgrimages, and tear-gassed parishioners.

Samuel Sifelani’s turn came a year ago. In July 2010, a pro-Kunonga priest appeared at the door of St. Andrew …

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