Peter Oborne

British churchmen back Mugabe

Peter Oborne on the refusal of Anglican and Catholic bishops to denounce the tyranny in Zimbabwe

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It is remarkable for Britain to be visited by a saint. But that was surely our good fortune last week, when Pius Ncube, the Archbishop of Bulawayo, passed through London. This gentle and soft-spoken former goatherd is a man of great holiness. In a country where churchmen have kept quiet, Ncube has consistently spoken out with extraordinary courage and firmness against the near-genocide that Robert Mugabe is visiting upon the Zimbabwean people.

Week after week, from the pulpit of Bulawayo Cathedral, Ncube uses his sermons to make a Christian protest against the torture, intimidation, rape, murders and forced starvation that are part of the daily rigours of Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF regime. When the Australian cricket team came to Bulawayo to play in the cricket World Cup, inevitably it was Ncube who led the protest from within the ground.

The response from Mugabe has been predictable. Ncube has been subject to death threats, abuse and threatening visits from the authorities. His phone is tapped, and he is followed everywhere by secret police. He is painted as an ogre figure in the government-controlled press. Every action he takes is wilfully misinterpreted. When he made a pastoral visit to Khami Prison in his diocese, the Bulawayo Chronicle claimed that afterwards there was a 'surprising increase in homosexual pornography' at the penitentiary.

His stand is made more extraordinary by the contrast with the inertia of most Zimbabwean churchmen. Though there are some distinguished individual exceptions, the baleful fact remains that both the Anglican and the Roman Catholic churches have preferred either to remain silent or to work within the Zanu-PF framework. Indeed, some of the most prominent churchmen do not merely bite their tongues; they are active cheerleaders of Robert Mugabe.

One notable case in point is Nolbert Kunonga, the Anglican Bishop of Harare. It is not simply that Kunonga has refused to condemn the outrages of Zanu-PF Zimbabwe. He uses his pulpit to praise Mugabe. In January last year, Kunonga took over a prayer meeting in Harare and used it as a forum to promote Mugabe's land-reform policy. On another notorious occasion, the bishop made the astounding and impious assertion that Mugabe was more godly than he was. He endorsed Mugabe ahead of the presidential election in March last year. Then, once the election was won – though only through the use of the most brutal and murderous intimidation – he attended Mugabe's inauguration ceremony. There he informed guests that the election result represented God's will. He dismissed Mugabe's critics as 'little voices shouting at a passing elephant'.

Kunonga's sycophancy towards the Zimbabwean despot affronted several of his fellow clergy. But he knew how to deal with their protests. He recently secured a court order banning more than a dozen churchwardens and members of the congregation from worshipping at the cathedral after they complained noisily about his pro-Mugabe sermons. Last April the United States added Kunonga to the list of corrupt public officials and villainous policemen who are banned from travelling to the United States.

It is one thing to remain quiet about Kunonga in Harare, where it takes real courage to speak out against the Zanu-PF regime. The bigger mystery is the silence from Lambeth Palace. To be fair, pressure has been brought behind the scenes. In the wake of the US ban, George Carey wrote a private letter to Bishop Nolbert in which he declared, 'I am more than a little concerned of [sic] how less than circumspect you have been about your affiliation with the regime you appear so keen to support.' But neither George Carey nor his successor Rowan Williams have publicly condemned the Harare prelate. Piers McGrandle of the Tablet asked Lambeth Palace back in February whether it planned to distance itself from the Bishop of Harare. He was informed that 'there are no plans to issue a statement for the time being'. The private excuse from Lambeth Palace seems to be that work is being done behind closed doors to bring the wretched Kunonga into line. Some say that they do not want to demoralise Zimbabwean Anglicans; others try to claim that the Archbishop of Canterbury has no powers to act. Neither defence counts for much. The Carey letter was written more than a year ago, and it is plain that his policy of private persuasion has failed to work.

Sadly, the Roman Catholic Church is just as timorous as the Anglican. Robert Mugabe's second marriage to his wife Gracie was officiated by Archbishop Patrick Chakaipa, head of the Roman Catholic Church in Zimbabwe. Chakaipa's attendance caused offence in some strait-laced Zimbabwean circles, since the President had enjoyed an adulterous relationship with Gracie before the death of his first wife, and two children were born out of wedlock. Other churchmen feared that by sanctioning the Mugabe marriage, the Church was condoning the regime and undermining its own prophetic role. Chakaipa remained on good terms with Mugabe. When the archbishop died three weeks ago, the President sought to declare him a 'national hero'. Pius Ncube spoke out against this move, declaring that 'national hero status is political and the archbishop was not a politician'. In the end, Chakaipa was laid to rest at Chishawasha, a Roman Catholic mission. Robert Mugabe gave an oration at the funeral. Pius Ncube approached him during the Peace and shook his hand 'just to show that I have nothing personal against him'.

Ncube is an astonishing man, fighting a private battle against despotism and murder that has unmistakable echoes of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's lonely crusade against Nazism during the second world war. Bonhoeffer was executed just before the end of the war; Ncube is running the same kind of risk. Like Bonhoeffer, Ncube is estranged not just from the ruling regime but from much of the Church that he serves, since its leading members have preferred to collaborate with the regime.

But none of us in Britain has the moral right to condemn the churchmen on the ground in Zimbabwe, any more than we have the right to condemn the Protestant pastors in wartime Germany who cheered on Hitler. We cannot imagine the perils they are under or the compromises they are forced to make; nor do we know the little acts of human goodness they still perform. This exemption cannot be made, however, for the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches in London. Our bishops do not live under daily threat of arrest, torture and mutilation. They are not followed by the secret police. But our churches, too, are mesmerised by Mugabe, and afraid to speak against him, as the shameful story of the archbishop's visit to Britain last week demonstrates.

When the Zimbabwe Democracy Trust, the vigorous US-based group which fights for freedom and human rights in Zimbabwe, proposed that Pius Ncube should visit London, the news was greeted with dismay. The Catholic bishops did not show delight and gratification at the chance to give moral support to a fellow Christian in his lonely battle against terror. Incredibly, it seems that Ncube was asked to reconsider his plan. At the time of the Bishops' Conference, during Low Week after Easter, the Catholic establishment looked set to block the Ncube visit. It is still unclear why Westminster Cathedral felt so uneasy about Ncube, though sources say that David Konstant, the Bishop of Leeds who has responsibility for international affairs, came under pressure from the Roman Catholic Church in Zimbabwe. There are also intriguing suggestions that No. 10 Downing Street, which has close links with Westminster Cathedral, was putting steady pressure on the Catholic Church to play down the event. Moves to block the visit altogether were stymied at a party given by the Bishops' Conference on 29 April, when the shadow foreign secretary, Michael Ancram, a prominent Catholic, made it known that he would cause a public fuss if Ncube was stopped.

In the end, a deal of sorts was hammered out. Ncube would come to Britain, but a publicity ban would be put on the visit. The Zimbabwe Democracy Trust had been planning to make the most of its illustrious visitor, with interviews tentatively planned on Breakfast with Frost, Newsnight, Channel 4, etc. Some had even been formally booked. They were cancelled. In the end, the Catholic Church, rather than celebrating their remarkable guest, and sending the message of support back to Zimbabwe, hustled him through Britain as if he were an escaped convict. The British government treated him with equal distance. Attempts for a meeting with Tony Blair – normally ready to join forces with any transient pop-star or footballer – were rebuffed. This week Ncube travelled to Washington, where he has been granted a series of high-profile meetings with senior administration officials, including the secretary of state Colin Powell.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, Archbishop of Westminster and Primate of All England, has got off to a shaky start. But the Ncube episode will put a permanent stain on his term of office. He has just one comfort. His Church of England counterpart, Rowan Williams, has behaved just as shamefully by allowing the Anglican Bishop of Harare to rant unchecked on behalf of Robert Mugabe. The behaviour of both archbishops, and both churches, is incomprehensible. They are sanctifying evil.