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Church mustn’t play it safe

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Nigerian faith leaders last month accused politicians of fuelling a recent upsurge in sectarian violence in which over 80 people were killed.

In a joint news conference, Christian and Muslim leaders said politicians were using religion to whip up trouble around the city of Jos.

Bombs exploded in several parts of the city of Jos on Christmas Eve, and Christian and Muslim youths clashed two days later.

Nigerians are due to hold national and local government elections in April.

Local politicians are frequently accused of trying to exploit communal tensions for their gain.

Jos lies in Nigeria’s volatile Middle Belt — between the mainly Muslim north and largely Christian south.

Jos has been blighted by sectarian violence over the past decade, with deadly riots in 2001, 2008 and the just-ended year. The clashes usually pit Muslims against Christians, but analysts say the underlying issues are political and economic.

At the news conference, Christian Association of Nigeria head Ayo Oritsejafor and his Muslim counterpart Sultan Muhammadu Sa’ad Abubakar issued a joint statement criticising politicians.

Oritsejafor said some politicians “know the weaknesses of the people”.

“They know how to manipulate their beliefs and they know the parts of the country where the people react very easily.”

The sultan accused politicians of a “failure of leadership”. He called on all Nigerians “not to succumb to the moves and practices of the few destructive elements that really don’t want peace in this country”.

Nigeria becomes relevant in view of the fact that Zimbabwe’s ruling class is gearing for elections this year and they have infused a religious element into this.

Will the Church become the new or main battleground? We could be heading into dangerous territory.

We should be worried, very worried, by this development, which could have sinister motives.

Zanu PF has come up with strategies targeting churches, among others, as it intensifies its campaign to win polls planned for this year, according to the party’s central committee report.

It has embarked on church-initiated programmes to “cement” relations between the party and worshippers, specifically targeting the Johanne Marange Apostolic Sect, Zimbabwe Muslim Women’s celebrations, Zaoga (the biggest Pentecostal denomination in the country), and various other churches. They already have the excommunicated Anglican cleric Nolbert Kunonga in the bag.

For a start, politics detracts from the main business of the Church — worship — because it is parochial by nature. This serves only to tear congregations apart, as seen in the sorry state of the Harare Diocese of the Anglican Church after the takeover by Kunonga with the overt backing of the ruling class.

Yes, he may have the buildings to himself, but he has lost the majority of the worshippers.

That’s why in Kambuzuma, the big board carrying the name “Anglican Church” has been replaced by another boldly inscripted “Arch Academy”; the church office is now a reception and registration centre while preparations are being made to convert the church itself into a giant classroom to conduct “A” Level classes ;

St Peter’s Church in Bindura has been turned into a phone shop; St Peter’s in Dombotombo, Marondera, is now a sewing shop; and several churches in Harare and surrounding areas are reportedly being rented out to tenants. St Michael’s Church, which holds a special place in Mbare’s history, is being hired out to other denominations.

That is what partisan politics does to worship; that is what happens when clergy do the bidding of politicians. This social engineering will only go so far; but it won’t carry the day.

Yes, there is real danger of churches losing their flock after identification with political interests and never to recover from that. Many Anglicans must have moved to other congregations and denominations because of the protracted impasse.

The Harare Diocese is now unrecognisable from what it was just a few years ago.

An institution with a tradition going back decades, it has been robbed of its soul — it’s now a marketplace. A line must be drawn between party zealots and spiritual leaders.

For instance, one of Kunonga’s lieutenants, Reverend Admire Chisango, has declared: “We can only pray for President Mugabe, not all the others.

We respect him as the leader given to us by God and we will continue to pray for him whether you want it or not. You cannot separate the church and the ruling party and that is why we will continue to support and pray for President Mugabe.”

There is no need for such narrowness and shallowness. Progressive states protect freedom of worship and maintain a distinction between civil and religious authority.

Religion is a matter which lies solely between an individual and his God.

There is always latent tension between the spiritual and the secular.

Believers “lose themselves (so to say)” in prayer and feel a sense of unity during a church service. These are two elements politicians want to take advantage of.

It is this spiritual connectivity they are keen to exploit. The ruling class may win over the church leadership, but it is doubtful that the rest of the membership will go along with that.

In the 2005 elections, Mugabe addressed over 12 000 members of the Johanne Masowe Apostolic Sect in Chitungwiza and all of them were projected in the state media as being enthusiastically behind him, but the poll results told a vastly different story as his total votes were barely 5 000.

This shows the futility of it all. Churches can’t be playthings of the high and mighty.

Christians, working individually and in groups, are bringing about improvements in social conditions.

They derive much of their moral standing and acceptability from the fact that they are largely non-aligned to any political cause.

So parochial political interests don’t sing from the same hymn sheet with the all-encompassing Church. As well as inspiring people, churches organise them into permanent congregations with defined rules.

The Methodist movement, led by John Wesley, gave a new self-respect to hundreds of thousands of underprivileged citizens in 18th Century England and made them thrifty, sober and hard-working. It had a wide-ranging political effect by playing an important role in growing prosperity.

Methodism also gave the poor and distressed hope of a better life in the world to come.

Wesley encouraged them to put up with their hardships and reject violence or revolution as a way out. His teachings not only helped to prevent a revolution, they encouraged peaceful reform.

Zimbabweans have been turning to God in their thousands because of, among other things, economic hardships brought upon them by the ruling class, but that very same ruling class is now following them in their places of worship intent on subverting and perverting the primary purpose of religious practice through politicking.

When government became remote and unresponsive after being crippled by hyperinflation between 2007-2009, the Church remained in touch with the people.

Will a church aligned to one political party extend its charitableness to known strongholds of political opponents or will it assist jailed opposition activists?

Why subvert the delicate balance between Church and State?

People will feel compelled to support and join one church over another because of political tags which can mean the difference between life and death in some parts of Zimbabwe.

Religion must be a force for good, not division and hate. It must be above the fray. The Church is the conscience of the nation.

As soon as it is identified with the political establishment, it sheds that role, it automatically and immediately loses that status.

The Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace effectively acted as a conscience during the dark Rhodesian times because it was not aligned to any political interest. It has remained so up to today.

It has maintained the moral high ground because it is essentially non-partisan when it comes to issues of socio-economic justice. It has not compromised itself by serving the interests of political masters.

It maintains, as it were, spiritual detachment; it’s not hitched to any political party. Where morality is involved, no neutrality is possible.

The Church must be tireless in its mission. It should never have patience for pretences; it should not focus on appearances.

It should show empathy towards the less fortunate in society , not identify and endear itself with the high and mighty.

These figures of authority do not always have people’s best interests at heart. When politicians make bad decisions, it’s the people who end up picking the pieces.

Let’s for a change do something for somebody without expecting benefit for ourselves. Churches should be robust in pointing out societal ills however grateful people are to the liberators for their many sacrifices which brought about Zimbabwe — because if they don’t, that cherished Zimbabwe will disappear into a dictatorship — and many signs to that effect are there.

So churches must reject these political overtures in no uncertain terms.

To play it safe is not to play.

ctutani@newsday.co.zw

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